S.C. ethics panel sets date for case against Gov. Nikki Haley

S.C. lawmakers said Thursday that they will start a historic ethics case against Gov. Nikki Haley on June 28.

Haley is accused of illegally lobbying for a Lexington hospital and Columbia engineering firm that paid her while she was a member of the S.C. House. The governor has denied the charges. If found to have violated the law, Haley could be fined or the case could be referred to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.

A sitting governor never before has been the subject of an ethics investigation in the S.C. House.

Haley’s case is being heard by legislators because the allegations stem from her time as a Republican state representative from Lexington County from 2005 to 2010. The State Ethics Commission typically weighs complaints against governors, most recently fining Mark Sanford $74,000 in 2010 for violations.

The House Ethics Committee hearing will be open to the public and media. The committee will announce the witnesses that it will subpoena Thursday. Haley, elected governor in 2010, also will be allowed to call witnesses at the hearing.

State Rep. Roland Smith, the Ethics Committee chairman, said he did not know whether Haley would be asked to take the stand. The governor’s office declined comment on whether Haley would testify, saying the governor has not been subpoenaed but will continue to cooperate with the investigation.

The committee will use two attorneys from the Columbia law firm of Willoughby & Hoefer to present the case against Haley and question witnesses based on the complaint against Haley, filed by GOP activist John Rainey, said Smith, a Republican from Aiken.

Attorneys Tracey Greene and Ben Mustain will represent the House in its investigation – not Rainey or his lawyers, Smith said.

Rainey said he would follow the procedures set by the committee.

Smith offered no explanation as to why the committee picked the same attorneys who brought the state Supreme Court case that led to ousting more than 200 challengers from next week’s primary election. A plaintiff in the election case was a campaign worker for state Sen. Jake Knotts, a Republican from Lexington County and a Haley opponent.

However, both Greene and Mustain have experience working in the S.C. House. Greene was chief counsel for the House. Mustain was chief counsel to its Judiciary Committee.

Attorney Butch Bowers of Columbia will present the governor’s case.

Members of the Ethics Committee, made up of five Republicans and a Democrat, also will be able to ask questions in the hearing, according to an outline of procedures approved Thursday.

After testimony and closing arguments, the six-member Ethics Committee will deliberate. Smith said he expects testimony to last at least two days.

The Ethics Committee had closed the case last month but voted to reopen the investigation after receiving more information about Haley’s work for Lexington Medical Center, where she earned $110,000 a year as a foundation fundraiser, and Wilbur Smith, which paid her $42,500 as a consultant.

Haley is accused of trying to win legislative votes for Lexington’s new heart-surgery center and to help get contracts for Wilbur Smith, which did business for the state.

Haley said she was working for constituents in Lexington County when gathering support for the heart center, and was trying to get private and county work for the engineering firm.