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Leroy Burnell

COLUMBIA -- A judge on Wednesday ordered a Charleston-based political group spending heavily to promote Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley to pull its television ads supporting her campaign.

Spartanburg County Judge James M. Hayes issued a temporary restraining order at the request of Haley primary opponent U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and three donors to ReformSC. The political group first created to push Gov. Mark Sanford's agenda has been airing ads statewide that laud Haley as a conservative leader.

At issue are limits placed on how outside groups can advertise for candidates. The complaint alleges that Reform SC's ads are illegal because they promote a candidate rather than an issue.

The ad shows Haley speaking at a tea party tax day rally at the Statehouse last month. An announcer says that Haley is "South Carolina's new conservative leader for less government and more freedom." It asks people to support her efforts in the Legislature to require detailed recording of lawmakers' votes.

The order issued Wednesday tells ReformSC to stop airing the ads until a hearing can be held in the next 10 days.

"Plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm if the Candidate's campaign is allowed to benefit from illegal and/or prohibited contributions," the judge wrote. "Given the shocking nature of the verified allegations ... this Court feels it lacks the ability not to act."

Four Republicans and three Democrats are running in the June 8 primary. Sanford is term-limited and leaves office in January.

The ads began airing a week ago and were a shot in the arm for Haley's cash-strapped campaign. The $530,000 she had in cash at the end of the March was less than a third of any of her three primary opponents, including Barrett. On Tuesday, Haley began airing her own ads.

ReformSC has defended the ads but not provided details of how much it is spending. The State newspaper has reported they cost $400,000.

In an e-mail Wednesday, ReformSC chairman Pat McKinney continued to defend the legality of the ads and assailed the Barrett campaign for attacking them.

"The ReformSC ads are completely legal. We will prove that in court, if necessary. And we will have the ads back up on the air. The fact that Gresham Barrett is willing to go to court to stop the transparency and accountability that will come when legislators have to vote on the record tells you all you need to know about what kind of governor he would be," McKinney wrote.

Haley's campaign has said there is no connection between the campaign and ReformSC's ads. Campaign manager Tim Pearson said Wednesday the complaint stems from a drive to stop so-called on-the-record voting.

"It's sad, but not surprising, that the entrenched powers in Columbia will do whatever they can to keep taxpayers in the dark," Pearson said.

As a 501(c)4 organization, ReformSC can raise unlimited amounts of money and air issue ads but must have as its main purpose a mission other than seeking to influence elections. That's different from a 527 group, a tax-exempt organization that can also raise unlimited cash and is created primarily to promote candidates.