High court hears Haley ethics case


— Private South Carolina citizens should be able to make cases against their elected representatives in court, an attorney for a Republican activist suing the governor argued in court Wednesday.

“The people ought to have an opportunity to determine if their elected officials are violating the law,” Dick Harpootlian told the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Harpootlian, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, represents John Rainey, a GOP activist who in 2011 accused Gov. Nikki Haley of violating ethics rules.

Rainey alleged that Haley, while a Republican House member representing Lexington, had done improper lobbying while also working as a hospital fundraiser and in business development for a highway engineering firm. The complaint 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.

A circuit judge threw out Rainey’s case last year, saying such issues weren’t up to a court to decide and should be handled by the House Ethics Committee. Rainey appealed that decision but also filed a parallel complaint with the House panel, which held hearings last summer in its first-ever inquiry into a sitting governor.

Haley told lawmakers she did nothing wrong in her jobs as a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization that funds Lexington Medical Center’s health care programs and as a consultant for engineering firm Wilbur Smith Associates. Committee members sided with Haley but called state ethics laws ambiguous and in need of reform.

On Wednesday, Harpootlian urged the court to side with his client, arguing that South Carolina citizens need to have some way to challenge government officials directly.

Questioned by Chief Justice Jean Toal about the legislative panel’s ruling and if it had any bearing on Rainey’s legal challenge, Harpootlian said those proceedings were run by House members, and his client played no direct role in them.

“This is about transparency,” Harpootlian said. “They sequestered him for some 12, 13 hours. He didn’t even see the proceedings.”

One of Haley’s attorneys urged the court to uphold the circuit judge’s decision to dismiss the case, portraying the lawsuit as a publicity stunt.

“This is inviting the courts to wade into a political process,” Kevin Hall said. “This is dangerous.”

Several justices pointed out that South Carolina courts are empowered to hear ethics complaints if an election is happening in 50 days, a timeframe not directly relevant to Rainey’s case.

The court likely will rule in several months. Haley’s office has predicted another dismissal and has called the suit a political vendetta against the governor and waste of taxpayer money.

“John Rainey is unserious and unstable, and he should go back to his plantation and stop wasting the time of the taxpayers,” Hall said.