Watchdog: Stiffer House Ethics Penalties Would Not Apply to Haley

June 28, 2012

Investigative Reports

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EthicsIf the S.C. House Ethics Committee finds Gov. Nikki Haley guilty of allegations that she illegally lobbied while a member of the House, Haley would not be subject to stricter ethics penalties the House adopted in May, a government watchdog says.

The Ethics Committee is meeting today to hear public testimony, question witnesses and examine evidence in the case.

Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken and chairman of the committee, said in earlier Ethics Committee meeting that he hopes the hearing will be wrapped up within two days.

The committee’s six members – five Republicans and one Democrat – have said they will not answer questions regarding the investigation until it is complete.

Changes to House rules under H. 3445, which was passed one day before the public opening of the Haley investigation, give the chamber’s Ethics Committee stronger options for handling investigations.

The rules change, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jim Harrison of Richland County, also opens cases pending before the committee to public disclosure if the panel finds probable cause of wrongdoing.

Fortunately for Haley, she would not be subject to the new rules because they took effect after she left the House.

Among other things, the new rules give the Ethics Committee power to impose steeper penalties, including, for the first time, fines.

However, Common Cause of South Carolina Director John Crangle says, “Under ex post facto laws of the federal Constitution, the new laws passed by the House would not be enforceable since they would be retroactive.”

This means that Haley would be subject to penalties under the old House rules if the committee finds her guilty.

But Crangle, a lawyer and longtime legislative ethics watchdog, says the ex post facto standard applies only to the new, stiffer penalties, not the public airing of the case.

That places the committee in uncharted waters – conducting a public inquiry into a sitting governor’s actions as a former legislator.

Under the old House ethics rules, the committee is limited to administering a private or public reprimand, determining whether technical paperwork violations occurred, expelling a member from the House, or referring the case to the state Attorney General’s Office.

The latter is limited to potential criminal violations, which would be under the attorney general’s jurisdiction.

The penalties under the new House rules include a fine of up to $2,000 per violation and the forfeiture of “gifts, receipts, profits or the value of them” deemed to have been obtained improperly.

The changes also remove the option for a private reprimand and empower the committee to impose multiple penalties rather than just one.

Reach Welch at (803) 254-4411 or blake@thenerve.org.