COLUMBIA — For the second time in two months, the House Ethics Committee on Friday cleared South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley of charges she illegally lobbied for an engineering firm and a hospital while a member of the House.
Members said the state’s ethics laws are ambiguous, though, and they’ll push for reform.
“We made judgments on the law, and that’s all we can do,” said Ethics Committee Chairman Roland Smith, R-Warrenville.
He expects to introduce ethics legislation in the next session.
The committee’s dismissal of four counts followed two hours of discussion behind closed doors. The five Republicans and one Democrat on the panel heard 12 hours of testimony Thursday.
The unprecedented case represented the panel’s first investigation into a governor.
Haley’s attorney, Butch Bowers, said the verdict ends the matter and shows that her conduct was appropriate.
Haley issued a statement saying she is pleased with the results.
“The Ethics Committee did its job thoroughly, professionally and well,” she said. “It’s just a shame that our judicial and legislative bodies have had to waste so much of their time on phony political charges that never had any evidence behind them or any basis in fact.”
In a surprise appearance Thursday, Haley told the panel she did nothing wrong in her previous jobs as a fundraiser for the Lexington Medical Center Foundation, a nonprofit that funds the hospital’s health care programs, and a consultant for engineering firm Wilbur Smith Associates. She was among 11 witnesses who testified.
Committee members voted unanimously on three of four votes, exonerating the governor on charges she was employed as a lobbyist while in the House and used her office for financial benefit.
Rep. Laurie Funderburk, the panel’s lone Democrat, cast the only dissenting vote, on a charge that Haley should have disclosed her work for Wilbur Smith on ethics forms. Funderburk said she believes Haley should have reported the compensation on her statement of economic interest, which is supposed to inform voters of any potential conflicts of interest.
“If nothing else, this hearing has pointed out there are varying interpretations of our ethics laws,” said Rep. Joan Brady, R-Columbia. “I, for one, am committed to being sure the laws are written clearly, that they’re easy to interpret not only for our colleagues but the public.”
As for disclosing her job for Wilbur Smith, a firm with state contracts, Brady said, “It may have been perhaps better to have erred on the positive side of perhaps listing the consulting.”
Haley, who originally sought a job in the firm’s accounting office, worked as a consultant for about two years, receiving $48,000, said Robert Ferrell, vice president of the company once known as Wilbur Smith. That’s $5,500 more than she reported on tax returns she allowed reporters to view just before her primary runoff in June 2010.
He said her job was a passive one – reporting possible business leads she picked up during social functions – but she brought no new actual business.
The complaint was brought in March by Republican activist John Rainey, after a judge dismissed his lawsuit, saying it wasn’t a judicial matter. Under state law, the House and Senate ethics committees investigate complaints against lawmakers.
The committee voted May 2 to dismiss the charges, immediately after finding probable cause that violations had occurred – a move that made the case public. The panel reopened the case four weeks later, after the back-to-back votes brought an appeal by Rainey to the full House and a request from a legislator that the panel reconsider its decision.
In a statement Friday, Rainey called the hearing a “shameful farce.”
“The entire process was designed procedurally and substantively to conceal the truth,” he said.
Rainey was subpoenaed but never called to testify. He was sequestered during Thursday’s 12-hour hearing.
Haley, the state’s first woman and first minority governor called Rainey a “racist, sexist bigot” during her hourlong testimony, recalling a meeting with him at his home during her 2010 gubernatorial primary race. It’s an account she first told in her book, Can’t Is Not An Option, released in April.
“He came in and was demeaning and he was demanding and basically said that he wanted me to prove certain things so that if I took the oath, they wouldn’t find out later that my family was related to terrorists,” said Haley, the child of immigrants, who grew up in the rural town of Bamburg’s only Indian-American family.
Rainey dismissed Haley’s comments as “personal attacks (that) are merely an effort to distract from the substantive and still unresolved questions I have raised.”
He has previously said he didn’t recall saying he wanted to make sure her family’s not related to terrorists, but that he could have made the reference “in an expansive jocular fashion.”
Both he and former GOP Chairwoman Karen Floyd, who attended the meeting, have said there was a broader context to the 15-minute conversation. His request to see tax returns and phone records came shortly after her income from Wilbur Smith was published in news reports, and a blogger alleged having an affair with Haley – an allegation she’s vehemently denied.
Rainey, who had persuaded former Gov. Mark Sanford to run, said he knew nothing about Haley and wanted to make sure the next governor he backed didn’t wind up in another scandal.