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The question at the center of an ethics probe into the actions of Gov. Nikki Haley when she was a state representative from Lexington County are straightforward: Did she lobby on behalf of a Lexington hospital and an engineering firm, thereby using her clout as a public official for personal gain?
The House Ethics Committee decided unanimously Wednesday to officially reopen the investigation. Meanwhile, Haley and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, are likely to continue waging political trench warfare over the issue.
The Ethics Committee failed to resolve anything when, on May 2, it dismissed the charges – immediately after voting that there was reasonable cause to suspect that a violation had occurred. The committee had viewed only three documents before voting to dismiss charges – the original complaint lodged by Republican activist John Rainey, Haley’s response and a letter from the hospital’s attorney, supplied by Haley.
The odd back-to-back votes brought objections by Rainey, who asked that the case go to the full House. State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, also introduced a resolution calling for the committee to continue its investigation.
On May 18, the committee responded to Smith’s resolution by voting unanimously to seek more information. Members asked for Haley’s employment documents and for affidavits from Lexington Medical Center, where she had been a fundraiser, and the engineering firm Wilbur Smith Associates, where she had served as a consultant.
Haley said last week that she had turned over all documents requested by the committee. She complained that the earlier dismissal should have been the end of the investigation but that she nonetheless would cooperate with the committee.
But there was further sniping on her part. She accused Harrell of goading the committee into reviving the investigation. She contends that vindictive foes in the Legislature are intent on taking her down.
Harrell’s office denies that he did anything more than ask the committee to thoroughly investigate the complaint against Haley. His spokesman Greg Foster called Haley’s accusations an “effort at mass distraction that’s not based on the truth.”
Members of the Ethics Committee also issued a statement saying that Harrell had not attempted to influence them or the investigation in any way.
While some might find the feud between the governor’s office and Legislative leaders entertaining as soap opera, it is irrelevant to the central issue, which is whether Haley broke the law. The investigation should continue until a concrete determination has been made regarding the accusations against Haley.
The Ethics Committee will hold a public hearing later this month where it will hear testimony on the case. Members also will have a chance to cross-examine those appearing at the hearing, which should give both committee members and the public a better picture of what occurred.
We hope the questions can be resolved through this process. And we also hope the rancor will subside.
The open displays of hostility between governor and Harrell are disturbingly reminiscent of the antagonistic relationship between former Gov. Mark Sanford and the Legislature. The resulting ill will slowed or halted potentially constructive legislation and was harmful to the state on a number of levels.
Haley ran for governor pledging to forge a more cordial, cooperative and productive relationship with the Legislature. While lawmakers bear some of the blame for her failure to do so, stunts like picking a new public fight with Harrell have contributed more to the continuing animosity.
Haley will have a difficult time repairing the rift – if she even intends to try.