Gov. Nikki Haley could increase the public's confidence in how any ethics allegations filed against her are handled by waiving her right to confidentiality and opening up the process. Only she can do so.
Last week, a circuit court judge dismissed a lawsuit claiming Haley broke state ethics rules while she was a House member. The judge ruled the House Ethics Committee or the state Ethics Commission should investigate ethics allegations; circuit court was not the appropriate place. A complaint is expected to be filed with the House Ethics Committee.
The allegations, laid out in a lawsuit filed by Republican activist John Rainey, are no secret. Rainey, former chairman of the state Board of Economic Advisors under Gov. Mark Sanford, claims Haley violated state ethics laws by illegally lobbying on behalf of two employers, Lexington Medical Center and Wilbur Smith, a Columbia-based engineering firm, while she was a Lexington County state representative.
Haley has denied the claims, providing some explanations on what happened in each incident questioned by Rainey, The (Columbia) State newspaper reports.
There is precedent for this unusual route. Sanford waived his right to confidentiality in an Ethics Commission investigation into his travel and campaign spending in 2009.
House Democrats on Tuesday asked Haley to waive confidentiality and disclose whether a panel is investigating allegations of ethics violations against her. The response from the governor's spokesman illustrates a major flaw in our system.
"If (Rep. Harry) Ott and members of the House want to change the law and waive confidentiality for all of the ethics complaints filed against them -- past and future -- the governor would be happy to join them," said Rob Godfrey, Haley's spokesman.
That is in fact what should happen. Unfortunately, the General Assembly is not subject to the same rules as other public officials in the state. House and Senate committees respectively investigate in secret complaints filed against sitting and former members. Lawmakers do not fall under the purview of the Ethics Commission.
After the Sanford investigation, lawmakers changed the law to make public information about charges when the Ethics Commission finds probable cause. Before that, the public had to wait until the commission made a final decision unless the person being investigated waived confidentiality.
As we wrote then, that precludes meaningful public oversight of how ethics charges are handled in South Carolina.
Sanford vetoed the bill, objecting because it didn't apply to General Assembly members.
"... what is good for the goose is good for the gander," Sanford wrote in his veto message. "We shouldn't have two ethics processes, one for legislators and another for everyone else in the state. Allowing this bill to become law would perpetuate this inequitable dual system."
The vote to override the veto was 102-2 in the House, which suggests many Democrats and Republicans were fine with keeping themselves under separate rules while requiring more openness for other public officials.
Not that Sanford didn't have his own problems with openness. After waiving confidentiality on the Ethics Commission investigation, he sought to keep House members, who were considering impeachment, from seeing preliminary investigation documents in the ethics inquiry. But the state Supreme Court said no.
We understand why lawmakers and other public officials are loath to make public all complaints filed against them, especially those found to be without merit. But a complete veil of secrecy can produce suspicion. In this instance, Haley can lift the veil.