Governor Nikki Haley was cleared Wednesday of accusations that she violated ethics laws while serving in the South Carolina House.
In a 5-1 vote, the House Ethics Committee said they could not find enough evidence to justify moving forward in the case. Committee Vice Chairman Mike Pitts (R-Laurens) said most of the investigation focused on Haley’s work as a fundraiser with the Lexington Medical Center Foundation and as a consultant with the Wilbur Smith engineering firm.
“The big point to look at was whether she actually violated the law as a consultant and who exactly her employers were,” Pitts told reporters afterwards, “There was no evidence to indicate she violated the law in either respect.”
The committee’s lone Democrat Rep. Laurie Funderburk (D-Camden) was the only “no” vote. Funderburk said she was not comfortable dismissing the case without a public hearing.
“I’m not alleging any wrongdoing,” said Funderburk. “It was just I did not feel that we had the full opportunity that a full hearing would have provided.”
The complaint filed by Republican fundraiser John Rainey accused Haley of several ethical violations, including lobbying the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to approve a new open heart surgery center while on the hospital’s payroll as a fundraiser. A member of the House is not allowed to use their office to obtain an economic advantage for themselves or their business.
The committee said it found that Haley actually worked for the hospital’s nonprofit LMC Foundation– which Haley’s Chief Legal Counsel Swati Patel wrote was independent of the medical center. According to committee members, the deciding factor was a letter Wednesday from an attorney representing Lexington Medical Center, who said the hospital and its foundation are legally separate organizations.
The complaint also accused Haley of soliciting donations from registered lobbyists towards the Foundation. Because Haley did so in the Statehouse lobby while the House was in session, the complaint argued, the donations were an illegal benefit to Lexington Medical Center. However, the committee sided with the governor, who said she received no personal benefit from the donations (she was not paid on commission) and did not cast votes based on whether the lobbyists contributed or not.
Rainey’s complaint also focused on Haley’s work as a consultant with Wilbur Smith and Associates. Then-Rep. Haley did not disclose her pay from the firm on a required statement of economic interest– which the complaint alleges is illegal because Wilbur Smith was involved in several state contracts. However, Patel said the contracts were with the Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Transportation– not the legislature.
One of those contracts– relocating the state Farmers Market– became an issue when the Legislature approved it in the 2007 budget. At the time, Haley abstained from voting and mentioned a possible conflict of interest. A year later, Wilbur Smith and the Agriculture Department were in a dispute over the market. The Legislature voted to cancel the project and instead move the market to Lexington County. Haley voted “yes.”
In the end, Pitts said, he and others felt there simply wasn’t enough evidence to dispute the governor’s account and take the investigation to the next level.
“I believe if we’d pursued past the complaint and the evidence we now have and go into a public hearing, we’re simply opening the door to a political witch hunt,” he said. “And I have no intention of going there.”
However, the committee did recommend clarifying lobbying laws to clear “gray areas” dealing with the differences between consultants and lobbyists. Pitts would not elaborate Wednesday.
Haley’s spokesman Rob Godfrey praised the committee in a statement. “Once again, we’ve seen another in a long line of made-up nonsense claims against Governor Haley found to be meritless. While mudslingers, trash-talkers, and political opponents will undoubtedly continue to do what they do, Governor Haley will continue to do what she does best, which is stay focused on improving South Carolina’s economy and reforming our government.”