South Carolina House votes to open investigations into its own if ethics committee finds probable cause

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COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House changed its rules Tuesday to open up its ethics investigations if probable cause is determined.

The House Ethics Committee might investigate Gov. Nikki Haley, a former House member who has been accused in a lawsuit of violating ethics rules when she was a legislator. A circuit judge dismissed the suit in March, saying such issues should be handled by either state ethics officials or a legislative panel.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The House Ethics Committee might investigate Gov. Nikki Haley, a former House member who has been accused in a lawsuit of violating ethics rules when she was a legislator. A circuit judge dismissed the suit in March, saying such issues should be handled by either state ethics officials or a legislative panel.

The change comes amid a possible House Ethics Committee investigation into Gov. Nikki Haley, though House Republicans said repeatedly after the unanimous 98-0 vote that the change, and its timing, had nothing to do with any particular person.

“It’s about bringing sunshine into the system,” said Rules Committee Chairman Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach.

Under state law, House and Senate ethics committees investigate charges against their current or former members, while the state Ethics Commission handles complaints against all other elected officials. Haley was a three-term House member before winning the governor’s race in 2010.

Speculation of a House investigation into Haley stems from a lawsuit accusing Haley of breaking ethics laws while she was a legislator. A circuit judge dismissed the suit in March, saying such issues should be handled by either state ethics officials or a legislative panel.

But whether the ethics committee’s six members are looking into it is officially unknown, since both state law and legislative rules bar even the acknowledgement that an inquiry exists, and Haley has declined to waive confidentiality. Haley’s office has called the lawsuit a political stunt.

As for the rule change, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said, “We take the (House) speaker at his word that today’s change has nothing to do with the governor.” He said Haley has “all along” said that opening up ethics hearings is a positive step.

Not exactly.

In March, House Democrats called on Haley to waive confidentiality and let the public know if an investigation is under way, using her own quotes about transparency to make their case.

Her office initially refused, calling the issue a waste of time, and saying that if one exists, regular procedures should be followed. Hours later, Godfrey followed up saying she’d agree only if the House opens up all ethics complaints, past and future, filed against its members. Complaints are the initial step that launches the committee’s work.

Then last month, Senate Democrats introduced a bill they called the “transparency in ethics act,” saying they want to remove the secrecy surrounding legislators’ investigations into complaints against their colleagues.

Her office seemed open to the proposed law, which mimics the new rule, saying that if legislators want to do it for everyone for all time going forward, it should get bipartisan support.

The resolution that took effect immediately conformed House Ethics rules to those for the state Ethics Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee.

While state law has the old language for legislative ethics queries, the Senate changed its rules last year. And, as the statute specifics, legislative rules trump the law.

“The House doesn’t want to have a rule less stringent than those bodies,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison, who introduced the resolution in January 2011.

Greg Foster, spokesman for House Speaker Bobby Harrell, noted the date Harrison filed the resolution as proof it has nothing to do with any possible current investigation.

But the vote came after Clemmons’ rules committee held a meeting not posted in advance on the House meeting schedule. The ethics committee met Tuesday morning, but of course, that was behind closed doors. Another meeting of the ethics committee’s five Republicans and one Democrat is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said legislators should have made the rule change long ago. While stressing he doesn’t know if Haley’s being investigated, he said she needs to show she’s about transparency, her key campaign issue.

“This should’ve been her request,” he said.

Ethics Committee Chairman Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, declined to comment.

The committee’s work remains secret unless and until its members decide there’s probable cause, meaning there’s reason to believe ethics violations occurred. Harrison compared the finding to that of a grand jury.

A formal hearing could occur once probable cause is found, which would be public under the new rule. It also specifies that once probable cause is found, or the accused waives confidentiality, then the complaint, the response from the accused, any exhibits introduced at a public hearing and the committee’s final order are public.

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