COLUMBIA — The long-simmering feud between Gov. Nikki Haley and Charleston’s most powerful lawmaker boiled over Thursday evening, with Haley accusing House Speaker Bobby Harrell of meddling in an inquiry into whether she violated ethics laws while serving as a state representative.
Harrell’s spokesman said the charge is off base, and the speaker merely wants a thorough investigation of accusations against the governor.
The bad blood between Haley and Harrell dates back to 2008, when Haley claimed the House speaker stripped her of a post on a high-profile committee over her push for more on-the-record voting. Harrell has denied the accusation.
While the catalyst for Haley’s accusations against Harrell remains unclear, the dustup follows a request this week by a House Ethics Committee lawyer for additional Haley employment documents as the panel weighs whether to reopen a complaint against her.
The committee unanimously voted last week to seek additional employment documents showing the relationship between the governor and one of her pre-gubernatorial employers, the Lexington Medical Center Foundation.
An ethics complaint filed by GOP activist John Rainey alleges that Haley illegally lobbied for the center while it sought state approval for a heart surgery center.
The complaint also claims that Haley exploited her office in work she did for Wilbur Smith Associates, a Columbia engineering firm that has received state contracts.
The committee’s inquiry took a turn this week when committee Chairman Roland Smith, R-Aiken, confirmed that a committee attorney followed up on the body’s vote to seek the hospital documents from Haley by requesting the same information detailing the governor’s work for Wilbur Smith.
GOP members of the committee said after last week’s vote that the committee only wanted to see the medical center documents.
Harrell spokesman Greg Foster said that while the speaker didn’t instruct the attorney to go after the additional employment records, he views the request for the additional documentation as appropriate.
Haley’s office said Harrell is exerting inappropriate influence over the Ethics Committee’s work.
The day before the committee voted this month to find probable cause to look further into the complaint against Haley, but then immediately voted to dismiss it, the Harrell-led House voted to make the committee’s hearings open upon a finding of probable cause.
The vote meant the next day’s Haley hearing would be held in public.
Previously the committee had been conducting its work in secret.
The only evidence Haley’s office offered Thursday to substantiate its charge against Harrell was indirect.
It claimed that House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Harrison told Haley officials that the same committee lawyer who asked for the Wilbur Smith records was instructed by Harrell not to retrieve them following the close of the day’s session.
“It is totally inappropriate for any member outside of the committee, including the speaker, to force himself into this process and order the committee to do anything,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said. “This is supposed to be a process where law and rules — not politics — determine the outcome.”
Foster said Harrell has not acted inappropriately.
“The only thing Speaker Harrell asked, or directed, the Ethics Committee to do is to conduct a full and thorough investigation into a complaint brought before them,” he said.
“It is disappointing to hear that the governor’s office has taken a position that an investigation into whether the governor violated the law should neither be full or thorough.”
Foster said the claim that Harrell instructed the committee attorney not to retrieve records is puzzling.
“The level of distraction is getting to the point of being silly,” he said. “Not only did the lawyers for the Ethics Committee receive the governor’s documents, they in fact had a 30-minute, closed-door meeting with her attorneys.”
While team Haley’s accusations flew on Thursday, the substance of the committee’s inquiry continued to move forward.
Haley’s office provided the committee sworn affidavits from Haley’s pre-gubernatorial employers saying she never lobbied for them, along with pay stubs and other records.
Rainey likewise filed another round of documents with the committee claiming Haley lied to the committee.
Haley has repeatedly denied Rainey’s accusations, and her office has said he is on a crusade against the governor.
The committee could meet as soon as next week to vote on a resolution that would reopen the complaint.
Rainey has filed a separate appeal of the committee’s dismissal of his allegations with the full House.
The legality of that appeal is still under consideration by House attorneys.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.