For all but the most dedicated detractors of Gov. Nikki Haley, the recent ruling by the House Ethics Committee should silence the accusations that she illegally lobbied for her employers when she was a state representative. Nonetheless, we hope the case compels the Legislature to reform disclosure rules for lawmakers.
The Ethics Committee was nearly unanimous in dismissing all seven charges against Haley, including allegations that she illegally lobbied for a Lexington hospital and a Columbia engineering firm she worked for. The lone dissent came from state Rep. Laurie Funderburk of Kershaw County, the sole Democrat on the panel, who cast a vote against dismissing the complaint that Haley violated state ethics law by failing to disclose her work as a consultant for the engineering firm.
While the rest of the committee consisted of Republicans, that did not necessarily benefit Haley. The animosity between the Legislature and the governor’s office supersedes any shared party affiliation.
But that only adds to the credibility of the verdict. While some committee members might have relished embarrassing Haley, the evidence just didn’t add up for finding her culpable.
Haley’s chief accuser, Republican activist John Rainey, said he still is awaiting a ruling on his appeal of a lawsuit against Haley filed in state circuit court. But barring a new development there, the issue appears to have been resolved.
So, does that represent a total exoneration for Haley? Unfortunately, part of the reason all the charges were dismissed is that the state’s ethics rules are so lax. Even Haley argued that she shouldn’t be held accountable for what she did on behalf of her employers because it is “common practice” in the Legislature.
State law doesn’t require lawmakers to disclose who their employers are. Lawmakers can legally lobby on behalf of an industry even if they are employed by a company in that industry. Groups that employ lobbyists also can employ legislators, making it harder to determine whether they are working together in ways that might pose a conflict of interest.
Some argue that South Carolina needs a full-time Legislature so lawmakers wouldn’t have to work at other jobs to support themselves. But that is not likely to occur in the near future, if at all.
Meanwhile, lawmakers ought to be required to name their employers. They also should be barred from accepting campaign contributions from special interest groups that have legislation pending before lawmakers to whom they are donating.
Haley should no longer have to serve as the poster child for state ethics reform. Her defense, though lame, probably was right: She didn’t do anything different from what a lot of other lawmakers also have done.
But we hope that’s not the end of the discussion. Ethics rules at least should ensure that elected officials don’t use their positions for personal gain.
Despite the verdict in Haley’s favor, lawmakers need to take a hard look at the rules governing their conduct with the goal of restoring confidence that they are serving the public interests at all times.