December 29, 2014

Governor’s campaign team targets lawyer-legislators

Sen. Vincent Sheheen is expected to be Haley's Democratic opponent next year (FILE)

Sen. Vincent Sheheen is expected to be Haley’s Democratic opponent next year (FILE)

Governor Nikki Haley’s campaign continued its ethics reform push Monday, bringing out a Columbia attorney who warned that some state senators often make money arguing cases in front of the very judges they help appoint.

The campaign sought to show its support for a proposed bill by Haley ally State Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) which would bar legislators from arguing cases in front of magistrates they recommend for appointment. They trotted out Leighton Lord of the Nexsen Pruitt law firm — a former Republican candidate for state Attorney General who is active on the governor’s re-election team — to criticize the current system.

Magistrates normally preside over criminal cases involving penalties of less than $500 fines or 30-day jail sentences. A potential magistrate must be recommended by a super-majority of the senators in their county delegation. The governor must then either nominate or reject that candidate. If the governor gives her okay, the Senate then votes on the nomination (senators almost always follow the local delegation’s wishes).

Lord said he and other attorneys are concerned that arrangement gives certain small-town senators an exceptional amount of power and created the appearance of a “good ol’ boy” system.

“This isn’t illegal. It doesn’t even violate the South Carolina rules of ethics,” he told reporters in a conference call. “But what it does is it causes people to lose faith in our criminal justice system.”

The Haley campaign had billed the conference call as a response to an article in The State newspaper that highlighted State Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s (D-Kershaw) eight cases in front of magistrates he recommended for appointment. However Lord largely refrained from attacking Haley’s likely opponent next year, focusing mostly on the law itself. In fact, he even said he agreed with the intentions of a bill Sheheen introduced in January that would require the South Carolina Supreme Court to provide a list of nominees for the governor, rather than local senators.

Sheheen’s camp was furious that the governor’s campaign was singling the senator out, as it noted Sheheen had already supported ending the practice.

“Senator Sheheen has led the effort to bring more transparency to this process. He introduced a bill nearly a year ago when no one else was talking about this issue,” Sheheen’s campaign spokesman Andrew Whalen told South Carolina Radio Network. “What we saw today from Nikki Haley, Sen. Shealy, and others is bringing more politics into the process.”

Whalen also called Haley a “hypocrite” for bringing ethics allegations against Sheheen at the same time her own administration has committed several minor transgressions. The State Ethics Commission fined Haley’s campaign $3,500 this summer for not reporting the addresses of eight donors. Her campaign also reimbursed the State Law Enforcement Division for security costs after several watchdog groups complained taxpayers were covering part of the costs for the governor to attend out-of-state fundraisers.

However, Haley’s campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey called Sheheen’s position a “conflict of interest.”

“Vince Sheheen obviously believes that what he is doing is unethical and should be illegal,” Godfrey wrote in an email. “But he continues to do it anyway, and he continues to personally profit from this practice.”