Haley, Sheheen battle over ethics as governor brings call for reform to Charleston
Gov. Nikki Haley brought her traveling call for ethics reform to Charleston on Monday, saying state lawmakers should have to publicly disclose their sources of outside income.
Meanwhile, her Republican allies said the practice of legislators picking magistrates also needs to be reformed, particularly since it allows for lawmakers who are also lawyers to influence who sits in courtroom judgment.
All sides agreed the magistrate comments were aimed largely at Haley’s likely 2014 gubernatorial foe — Democrat Vincent Sheheen, a state senator and practicing attorney from Camden.
For their part, South Carolina Democrats said Haley does not come into the ethics discussion free of criticism — she’s described her past brushes with ethics issues as falling into “gray areas” that need clarification — and that Republicans are backing the same sort of magistrate reform previously introduced by Sheheen.
Monday was a day of ethical “one-ups” as Haley held her third news conference in recent days around the state on the need for ethics reforms in the Statehouse. Ethics questions have dogged several prominent South Carolina politicians in recent years, and the issue could become a major one in the gubernatorial race.
Top among Haley’s efforts is making legislators disclose their income sources since South Carolina is one of four states without the guideline.
“If you know who pays your legislator,” she said, “then you know why legislators vote the way they do.”
Haley’s comments came as she was flanked by a half-dozen Charleston-area GOP lawmakers gathered at the College of Charleston. The appearance also was a curtain-raiser toward the Legislature’s restart in January, where the ethics reform package is the first big item on the agenda in the Senate.
The measure, which passed the House last session, would require legislators to report sources of income and remove the current system of lawmakers investigating each other following an alleged ethical breach.
Instead, the State Ethics Commission would do the investigation when such a case arises, though the disciplinary action, if any, would still be determined by other lawmakers.
Haley allies say they expect a tough fight from senators opposed to the reforms when the session starts since many lawmakers contend they should keep oversight of judging each other’s conduct.
“We are going to have an ethics ‘all-nighter,’ ” predicted state Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, who was at Haley’s news conference.
Meanwhile, Republicans also tried to play up the fact that Sheheen, D-Camden, as an attorney, has eight cases scheduled in front of magistrates that he recommended for appointment. The case load was first reported Saturday by The State newspaper in Columbia.
Local county magistrates in South Carolina are appointed by the governor based on recommendations from state lawmakers, and Sheheen is not the only lawyer-legislator who could practice in front of magistrates in the state.
But Haley’s camp made note of the fact he is the only one running for governor, and that the situation allows for at least a possible appearance of courtroom favoritism.
“It puts senators in a bad position, just like it puts everyone else in a bad position,” Leighton Lord, a past GOP candidate for state attorney general and Haley supporter, said during a conference call with South Carolina media outlets organized by Haley’s campaign.
“If you’re the victim of a crime, you want to make sure justice is done and that politics aren’t being played out in the courtroom in front of a magistrate. ... You have to take the senator out of the equation,” he said.
Democrats said the idea to change the selection process for magistrates reflects a bill Sheheen previously filed that would have the S.C. Supreme Court nominate them. The Republican response is too late, they said.
“For Nikki Haley, it’s brutal when the truth comes out,” state Democratic Party Communications Director Kristin Sosanie said. “And you know the sitting governor must be really desperate when even her own surrogates support Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s efforts to clean up South Carolina’s government over hers.”
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.