COLUMBIA — During her work as a fundraiser for a hospital foundation, Gov. Nikki Haley wasn’t asked to try to influence state health department officials who had turned down a request to certify a new open-heart surgery center, the hospital’s president and chief executive testified at Haley’s ethics hearing Thursday.
“She had an interest in the process just like any other member of the delegation,” Mike Biediger told the House Ethics Committee.
The testimony was part of the panel’s first investigation into a sitting governor. At issue are allegations that, as a state representative, Haley engaged in illegal lobbying while working as a consultant for a highway engineering company and also as a hospital fundraiser.
The Republican governor has consistently maintained that she acted within the law in her work for Lexington Medical Center and Wilbur Smith Associates and has said that her work on the hospital’s open-heart center application was for her constituents, not an employer.
On Thursday, her attorney said John Rainey, the GOP activist whose complaint launched the panel’s investigation and the hearing, was in the wrong.
“He’s misguided, he’s misinformed and he’s mistaken,” Butch Bowers said. “Just because he says it with conviction doesn’t mean it’s true.”
None of the seven witnesses who testified Thursday said they knew about Haley’s doing any lobbying in either role.
Biediger, who has led the hospital since 1996, testified that he hired Haley for the $110,000 a year job at Lexington Medical Center Foundation after the legislator – who then sat on the foundation’s board – approached him about a job after her parents’ clothing business fell on hard times.
“She initially proposed that she could be a consultant ... and that she could help us raise money,” Biediger said. “It seemed to me that she would make a good employee for the foundation because of her personality.”
As her fundraising experience, Biediger cited Haley’s ability to raise money for her own political campaigns. An outside firm recommended that Haley be paid more than $145,000, but Biediger said the hospital opted to pay her 75 percent of that because of the time she would need to do her work in the Legislature.
Attorneys asked Biediger about e-mails Haley sent to hospital officials in which she talked about having her “fingers crossed” for key votes related to the heart center project. Biediger said the message was not part of a coordinated effort to get either lawmakers or health department officials considering the permits to change their minds.
“She had an interest in the process, just like any other member of the delegation,” Biediger said.
Thad Westbrook, who serves on the foundation’s board, also testified he didn’t remember Haley participating in discussions about the pursuit of certification for the heart hospital. Billy Boan, a hospital lobbyist, said he coordinated no lobbying efforts with Haley.
Earlier in her House tenure, Haley was hired by a highway planning company to do business development but brought in no new business, an executive at that company testified.
“You are to keep your eyes open, be cognizant of what’s going on around you when you go to social functions, when you go to business functions, and if you hear of opportunities ... you let us know,” Robert Ferrell, the vice president of the company once known as Wilbur Smith Associates, told the committee of the instructions given to Haley. “It was not a proactive, go knock on doors and start looking for work. It was, just be aware of what’s going on.”
During her roughly two years with Wilbur Smith, Haley – who originally sought a job in the firm’s accounting office – actually drummed up no new business for the firm, Ferrell testified. She was compensated $48,000.
Thursday’s meeting comes after the House Ethics Committee voted unanimously in early May that it had found probable cause that a violation existed, then immediately voted along party lines to dismiss all charges against Haley, a decision Rainey appealed. Committee members have issued 11 subpoenas, but Haley has not been summoned to testify.
Rainey’s complaint was initially a lawsuit, which was dismissed by a circuit court judge but has been appealed. Rainey has been represented by Dick Harpootlian, who serves as chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.