S.C. ethics panel reopens probe of Gov. Nikki Haley

The House Ethics Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to reopen its inquiry into whether Gov. Nikki Haley illegally lobbied while a S.C. House member, exploiting her public office for her personal gain and to benefit her employers.

The committee will hear testimony from witnesses it selects who will be required to give testify under oath, said state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, chairman of the House Ethics Committee.

No date was set for that testimony. However, a list of possible witnesses could come as early as next week, Smith added.

Witnesses are likely to include officials at Columbia-based engineering firm Wilbur Smith Associates, where Haley was a paid $42,500 as a consultant, and the Lexington Medical Center Foundation, where she worked as an $110,000-a-year fundraiser.

GOP activist John Rainey, who filed the complaint against Haley, also is likely to be called as a witness. In a statement issued Wednesday, Rainey said: “I applaud the committee’s decision to reopen the complaint and hold a public hearing to fully and transparently resolve this matter. I also look forward to the opportunity to offer public testimony in this case.”

Haley has denied the allegations, turning over affidavits and other documents to the committee that she said proved her innocence.

At Wednesday’s House Ethics Committee meeting, Haley’s attorney, Butch Bowers, unsuccessfully argued that the Lexington Republican did not break the law and that there is no evidence that she did. Bowers also argued the committee is breaking its own rules by reopening the case after voting 5-1 to close it earlier this month.

Bowers pointed to affidavits from Haley’s former employers, swearing she did not lobby.

“Folks, you got no other evidence before you,” Bowers said. “All you’ve got is conjecture.”

But the committee’s members — five Republicans and a Democrat — said there are too many unanswered questions and voted 6-0 to reopen the case.

Those lingering questions include whether Haley was working for Lexington Medical Center, which was seeking legislative approval to expand, or its foundation, and whether Haley’s solicitation of donations for the foundation from lobbyists and businesses with business before the state was lobbying.

State Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Kershaw, the committee’s only Democrat, questioned Wednesday how independent the hospital foundation is, since it is overseen by the hospital’s board.

Bowers said that even if Haley was working for the hospital — which he said she was not — it would not be illegal because state law allows lawmakers to work for anyone they choose, as long as they do not lobby on their employers’ behalf.

In one email to Lexington Medical’s chief executive, Haley talked about winning and holding House votes for the hospital’s expansion. However, Ethics Committee members previously said that did not constitute lobbying. Instead, they said pressing the interests of a business within a lawmaker’s district is something any legislator would do.

Haley’s attorneys have argued previously that she did nothing more than other lawmakers commonly do. Questioning her activities would call those lawmakers’ actions into question, as well as well-known S.C. companies, one of her attorneys wrote the committee.

That response infuriated many legislators, who said Haley was smearing them.

Bowers came close to the same line Wednesday, saying some lawmakers work for businesses that employ State House lobbyists. He added there is nothing wrong with that, according to state law.

State Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland, asked Bowers to provide the committee a list of those lawmakers. Bowers said he would.

Brady said Tuesday that she would suggest the committee turn the investigation over to the state attorney general’s office. However, Wednesday she told the panel she would wait and see the results of the reopened probe before deciding whether to request the state’s top attorney get involved.

Questions — some raised by Haley herself — linger as to whether the investigation has become too political and its rules have been changed to unfairly target the first-term Republican governor.

Last week, Haley said fellow Republican Bobby Harrell of Charleston, the speaker of the S.C. House, was stirring up an out-of-control investigation into her past. Harrell responded by asking what the governor had to hide.

“It’s a shame that South Carolina’s political system is once again failing the people and that politics are trumping the law,” Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman, said Wednesday. “The governor will do what she has done time and again throughout this process, before and after the claims were dismissed: be open and honest about her work as a legislator, and stay focused on the things that matter to South Carolinians — getting our economy moving and reforming the backwards, good ol’ boy system of government that so clearly thrives in Columbia.”

The S.C. House Ethics Committee’s members — five Republicans and a Democrat — said that there are too many unanswered questions. The lawmakers on Wednesday voted 6-0 to reopen the Haley ethics investigation.