The House Ethics Committee has officially reopened its investigation of Governor Nikki Haley. Members voted 6-0 Wednesday night to reconsider their earlier decision to dismiss an ethics complaint filed by Republican activist John Rainey.
The next step will likely involve subpoenaing potential witnesses to testify in the case. The committee is investigating whether or not Haley illegally lobbied for Lexington Medical Center and engineering firm Wilbur Smith Associates while she was still a member of the House.
Under the committee’s rules, a public hearing must be held in the next 30 days.
“There are still questions lingering out there,” said the committee’s vice-chair Mike Pitts (R-Laurens).
The committee’s lone Democrat, Laurie Funderburk (D-Camden) praised the decision, saying the “rule of law was upheld.”
The committee first took up Rainey’s complaint last month. On May 2, they found probable cause that a violation had occurred (making the case public for the first time) but then dismissed the charges moments later. However, at the request of Rep. James Smith (D-Columbia) on May 18, members asked for more documents from Haley’s office, the medical center, and Wilbur Smith (now known as CDM Smith).
Committee members did not agree with Haley’s attorney Butch Bowers, who said the committee’s actions Wednesday violated its own rules. He argued any motion to reconsider must come within a day of the May 1 decision.
“I don’t believe you can make the rules up as we go,” he told the panel in his testimony, “And the rules simply don’t allow the matter to be reopened.”
However, a staff attorney said the move was allowed because the committee never formally adjourned after its last meeting– meaning a full “legislative day” had not occurred since its original decision.
While the vote was unanimous, some members still seemed nervous about the public hearings, which are a first for a committee that has historically operated in secret. Chairman Roland Smith (R-Aiken) worried things were starting to get out of hand.
“This has become a political circus,” he said after the meeting, “Will we ever be able to satisfy the folks that have a political agenda against the governor? Probably never, but we want to be assured ourselves that we’ve got the facts.”
Before reaching its decision Wednesday, committee members grilled Bowers on Haley’s work as a fundraiser for the Lexington Medical Center Foundation. Specifically, their questions focused on whether Haley was paid by the hospital or its charity. Questions also focused on Haley’s vocal support for a new heart center at the time. The committee could eventually decide whether that constituted illegal lobbying or was within her job description as a Lexington County lawmaker.
The committee will meet again to decide on subpoenas. Pitts made it clear he wanted Rainey to testify– Rainey has missed each of the committee’s last two meetings. Funderburk and Smith indicated witnesses named in the original complaint (mostly staffers and administrators at the Lexington Medical Center) could also be subpoenaed. Any subpoenas have to be approved by majority vote.