S.C. Gov. Haley says House Speaker Harrell is pushing ethics probe

Gov. Nikki Haley’s office Thursday all but accused House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, of a political vendetta. Meanwhile, Harrell’s office accused Haley of attempting to short-circuit a House Ethics Committee investigation into whether the governor broke state law.

Haley aides questioned whether Harrell, who appoints the six members of the House Ethics Committee, unfairly is influencing the panel’s review into whether Haley illegally lobbied or broke other ethics laws while a state representative.

“It is totally inappropriate for any member outside of the committee, including the speaker, to force himself into this process and order the committee to do anything,” said Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman. “This is supposed to be a process where law and rules – not politics – determine the outcome.”

While both Republicans, Haley and Harrell have a history of conflicts.

However, Harrell’s office Thursday denied the speaker has exerted undue influence over the ethics investigation. Harrell did not ask the committee to review any specific documents or seek out any specific information, his office said.

“Speaker Harrell asked the Ethics Committee to fully and thoroughly investigate the complaint before the committee,” said Greg Foster, Harrell’s spokesman. “That extended to the committee’s ability to request and review any and all necessary documentation related to the complaint.”

Foster added: “It is disappointing to hear that the governor’s office has taken a position that an investigation into whether the governor violated the law should neither be full or thorough.”

State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, a member of the committee, said he can only speak for himself, and he has not been influenced by Harrell. Of Harrell’s role in the investigation, Pitts said: “I don’t know how much say he (Harrell) is having, but he’s keeping a close eye on it.”

The decision by the Ethics Committee last week to look again at charges against Haley that it had dismissed earlier in the month has raised eyebrows. Also, the ethics panel, a political backwater that rarely does anything, suddenly seemed intent on investigating the charges.

Some lawmakers speculate Haley is being treated differently than others investigated by the committee in the past.

For instance, the media learned Wednesday that the committee had requested additional documents related to Haley’s work history while a state representative, including her consulting work for Wilbur Smith Associates, a Midlands engineering firm. Some committee members said they were unaware their panel had requested more information about Wilbur Smith.

A committee staff member later said he requested the documents of his own accord in an effort to be thorough.

Harrell’s office said the request was appropriate.

“The speaker’s office believes the request for supporting documentation related to the scope of this complaint was completely appropriate and the committee’s thoroughness will help bring closure to this issue,” Foster said.

History of bad blood

Haley and Harrell have a contentious relationship dating back to 2008, when then-state Rep. Haley claimed Harrell punished her for pushing for more on-the-record House votes by removing her from a powerful House committee and assigning her to a less desirable committee.

Harrell denied the claim.

The relationship seemed mended as Haley campaigned to be governor, earning Harrell’s endorsement.

But the relationship soured again in April with the release of Haley’s new memoir. In it,Haley portrayed Harrell as one of the leaders of the “good ol’ boy” system at the State House, saying he humiliated her in front of her colleagues and blocked her reform efforts.

Harrell responded by saying Haley’s memoir inaccurately recounted events. He said any humiliation that Haley suffered was due to her lack of knowledge of House rules, adding she appeared to have transformed herself from a House leader to an outsider because it was politically advantageous.

New filings to committee

The renewed Haley-Harrell fight comes as Haley’s office is releasing tax forms and other documents to the House Ethics Committee about her work for the Lexington Medical Center Foundation and Wilbur Smith.

Now, it is up to the ethics panel to decide whether it is satisfied with the documents and reaffirm its earlier decision to close the case against Haley, reopen it or send it on to the full House for debate.

“We expect the Ethics Committee to not be intimidated or swayed and do the right thing for the good of the taxpayers of this state,” Godfrey said. “To stand by their initial, correct decision – which is bolstered now by three sworn affidavits by respected members of the Lexington community. There has never been any validity to these wild accusations...and the documents we were happy to provide prove that even further.”

The documents that Haley handed over to the committee Thursday included:

Affidavits from leaders at the Lexington Medical Center Foundation, where Haley was paid $110,000 a year as a fundraiser, and Wilbur Smith Associates, a Midlands engineering firm that paid Haley $42,500 for consulting. Those statements swear Haley did not work as a lobbyist for either company. Also, Haley filed an affidavit from Lexington Medical Center’s board chairman, swearing Haley did not work for the hospital.

Haley’s 2010 W-2, showing she was paid by Lexington Medical Center and a paycheck stub, listing the hospital’s foundation as her employer. (A hospital official has said all foundation employees are paid by the hospital.)

Supporting documents, showing the hospital and foundation have separate boards and bylaws, and are separate entities.

A major issue before the committee is whether Haley lobbied for Lexington Medical Center which sought legislative approval to open a new open heart surgery center. Haley’s attorneys have argued Haley worked for the foundation, not the hospital, so she could not have lobbied for the hospital.

Lawmakers are prohibited from lobbying for an employer. The Ethics Committee already has ruled that Haley’s advocacy for a new Lexington heart center was legal, saying any legislator would advocate for such a project in their district.

GOP activist John Rainey, who filed the ethics complaint, alleges Haley worked for the foundation – a department of the hospital, not a separate entity – and that she illegally exploited her elected office to benefit her employers – Lexington Medical and Wilbur Smith.

Rainey also filed additional paperwork with the committee Thursday, alleging Haley had broken the law.