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Governor’s Ethics Case Could Lead to More Reforms

An ethics case involving Gov. Nikki Haley already has been the apparent source of a change toward more openness in the S.C. House, and it could lead to additional reforms in the chamber.

The case centers on allegations that Haley violated ethics laws as a House member before she became governor.

Haley consistently has denied the charges and characterized them as politically motivated.

The House Ethics Committee has jurisdiction over the matter.

As an outgrowth of the case, the committee is working on a report that will recommend tightening ethics guidelines for House members, according to the panel chairman, Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken.

Among other things, the report will suggest clarifications as to what constitutes lobbying by a House member, Smith says.

“It’s going to address some of those things – how far can I go trying to get something for my constituents,” he says, describing the committee’s forthcoming recommendations as “pretty strong.”

The Haley case came to light because of a House rule change, which members of the chamber approved earlier this month on a 98-0 vote.

Unexpectedly and with little notice, the House Rules Committee and the full chamber speedily passed the measure after it had collected dust in the committee since Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, introduced it in January 2011.

“Smells kind of funny, don’t it?” Rep. Michael Pitts, R-Laurens and vice chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said Friday when The Nerve asked him about the sudden haste by the Rules Committee and the House in recently approving the rule change.

Letting a little sunlight in on the Ethics Committee’s long-secret activities, the revision makes a case pending before the panel open to the public if the committee determines that it involves probable cause of wrongdoing.

One day after the House passed the rule change, the six-member Ethics Committee made a probable cause finding in the Haley case. But minutes later the committee voted 5-1 to dismiss it.

Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, then filed a resolution asking the committee to reconsider its decision to toss the case and reopen it.

In a hearing Friday, the Ethics panel postponed debate on the resolution, opting not to vote on it at the time.

But the committee also voted, unanimously, to seek more information from Haley.

The committee wants to see tax records or other documents verifying any employment relationship she had with Lexington Medical Center, or a charitable foundation that supports the hospital, when she was a House member.

Among other things, the case alleges that Haley illegally lobbied for Lexington Medical Center while working for the hospital, which was seeking legislative approval for an open-heart surgery center.

Haley contends that she was employed by the foundation and that it is an entity separate from the hospital.

The committee also wants to see documents substantiating whether the foundation is an independent nonprofit organization.

The Ethics panel gave Haley a deadline of 12 p.m. Friday to turn over the additional information.

John Rainey, a longtime Republican fundraiser who lives in Camden, filed the case against Haley.

Absent the rule change, the Ethics Committee’s probable cause finding and previous vote to dismiss the case, as well as James Smith’s resolution, could not have been made public.

Indeed, previously the committee operated with virtually no obligation to disclose anything.

“So, I think the rule change has certainly provided more tools to the committee,” Ethics Chairman Roland Smith said in an interview with The Nerve after the hearing Friday.

He described the rule change as overdue.

“Now we’ve got some of the changes, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t need some more changes,” Roland Smith said.

“We’re going to issue a pretty strong opinion when this is over with (detailing) things that House members won’t be able to do,” he continued. “Some of that needs to be reined in. But they need to know about it in advance.”

Elaborating, the chairman said:

“And see, when it’s an opinion of the Ethics Committee, that’s pretty much the law. OK, the committee – I don’t want to name individual things – but it’s going to make people be very careful about what they do.”

He did not indicate when the report would be released.

“But it will address members of the House, candidates for the House, and future members of the House and candidates – this you can’t do; cannot do,” Roland Smith said. “We’re getting the legal staff to put it together. I think it’s going to tighten up the rules, yes.”

James Smith, who is not related to Roland Smith, attended the entire hearing Friday and addressed the Ethics Committee about his resolution.

The Nerve asked him afterward whether he thinks the Haley case points up a need for more transparency in legislative ethics as a whole.

“I don’t know that I can answer that question at this point,” he said. “We’re still in the process and I appreciate what the committee’s done today. But I think it’s not concluded yet.”

Roland Smith has served on the House Ethics Committee for more than 20 years.

In that time, has the committee ever publicly disciplined a House member?

“I don’t recall,” the chairman replied. “I’m being honest.”

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

Accountability Ethics General Assembly Transparency Legislative Power Trip

S.C. House Ethics Committee Rep. Jim Harrison Rep. James Smith John Rainey Rep. Michael Pitts Lexington Medical Center Foundation Rep. Roland Smith Gov. Nikki Haley Lexington Medical Center