COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley was cleared of ethics charges Wednesday by the GOP-controlled South Carolina House Ethics Committee at a meeting in which members first voted that there was good reason to look further into the charges, then quickly voted to dismiss them anyway.
The panel voted 5-1 to dismiss all charges against the Republican governor in a complaint filed in March. Its chairman said the case involved vagueness over what constitutes consulting and sloppy campaign filings.
After several closed-door sessions, the committee opened the door to media and unanimously found probable cause to look into the matter, a vote that made the case public under new House rules adopted Tuesday, allowing members to acknowledge for the first time that the complaint existed.
Legislators have likened the probable cause finding to a grand jury indictment.
But they immediately decided there was not enough evidence to warrant further investigation into whether Haley violated ethics rules while representing Lexington County in the House before being elected governor in 2010.
They also directed staff attorneys to draft a new rule for House members that clearly defines illegal lobbying versus allowed consulting.
“We felt there were gray areas that couldn’t be resolved,” said Ethics Committee Chairman Roland Smith, R-Warrenville. “We certainly don’t want to do a witch hunt.”
Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk, the only Democrat on the panel, voted against dismissing the charges.
“I was not comfortable reaching the conclusion to dismiss without more facts,” said Funderburk, D-Camden. While stressing that she is not alleging wrongdoing, she added, “I believe a hearing is warranted.”
The committee’s review involved studying the complaint, Haley’s response, and staff communication with agencies, Smith said. No testimony was taken. That would have been the next step, he said.
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey praised the decision.
“We commend the House for doing its job seriously and professionally. Once again, we’ve seen another in a long line of made-up nonsense claims against Governor Haley found to be meritless.”
A spokesman for Senate Democrats called it a slap in the face to voters for the committee to find probable cause of wrongdoing, then vote to not hold a hearing. “This is Republican good ol’ boys protecting their good ol’ gal,” Phil Bailey said.
The complaint mirrors a lawsuit by longtime Republican activist and former Board of Economic Advisors Chairman John Rainey. A circuit court judge dismissed the lawsuit March 21, saying such issues are not a judicial matter.
Under state law, the House Ethics Committee handles ethics complaints of current and former House members. The case marks its first review of a governor.
“Everybody was watching. We wanted to do this right,” Smith said. “We were trying to avoid politics.”
Rainey said the dismissal on a party-line vote demonstrates a broken system. Dismissing the charges moments after finding cause to investigate them “defies all reason or sense of justice,” he said.
“In light of such tortured logic, this can only be explained as a political decision to paper over the culture of corruption infecting our public institutions,” he said, adding that he was not even told Haley had responded to his complaint.
His lawsuit and complaint centered on Haley’s jobs as a fundraiser for Lexington Medical Center and as a consultant for an engineering firm with state contracts while she was a state representative.
It also asked whether it was illegal for Haley to seek tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists for the hospital’s foundation while legislators were in session and had issues before her subcommittee.
Haley’s response repeated what she has said since her 2010 campaign, that there was nothing improper about asking lobbyists to donate to a charity.
She received no bonuses and did not work on commission, so the claim that lobbyists gave donations to buy favor is insulting, according to her lawyer, Swatti Patel.
Rainey also accused Haley of lobbying the state Department of Health and Environmental Control on behalf of Lexington Medical, as it sought permission for a new open-heart-surgery center.
Haley and hospital officials have repeatedly said her job as a fundraiser had nothing to do with the heart center.