Ethics inquiry process needs an overhaul

The S.C. House on Tuesday opened the door slightly to its ethics inquiry process, but slammed it shut Wednesday with a perfunctory vote to clear Gov. Nikki Haley of charges she had illegally lobbied while a state representative.

Neither Haley nor the public was served by what happened this past week, not if the goal was to show us that she had done nothing wrong in her work for the Lexington Medical Center Foundation and while consulting for Wilbur Smith Associates, a firm that has received state contracts.

The 98-0 vote on Tuesday changed House rules to open up ethics investigations if probable cause is determined.

On Wednesday, the House Ethics Committee, which secretly had been looking into the allegations against Haley for the past month, agreed there was probable cause that a violation occurred, opening its hearing to the public. But just minutes later, in a 5-1 party line vote, it dismissed the allegations, saying no additional investigation was warranted.

One wonders why House members bothered with the rules change or why the Ethics Committee bothered to open its hearing. The only thing gained was to say publicly that Haley had done nothing wrong.

Of course, Haley could have made it all open from the start. That she chose not to do so says a lot about her commitment to transparent government.

The committee, once it had established probable cause, could have called witnesses to testify under oath and gathered additional documents.

But no, committee members cited vague state law on what constitutes illegal lobbying versus legal consulting, saying it left room for interpretation of what constituted appropriate activity by lawmakers. They told staffers to start work on a bill to clarify the law.

Is anyone surprised that laws written by legislators are vague about what would be considered illegal activity by legislators?

More telling was a point made by Haley's attorney, Swati Patel, in a response to the ethics complaint: "Indeed, Gov. Haley's business activities and conduct are commonplace in the legislature and were always consistent with the law."

Patel also warned that to take action against Haley would open up other lawmakers and businesses to charges of unethical behavior. "To find otherwise would not only impugn the integrity of other members of the General Assembly, but also that of many of South Carolina's best corporate partners: BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, Michelin, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and several others."

That's a double-barreled defense: Point out to lawmakers, who police themselves when it comes to ethics, their own vulnerabilities and drop some big business names to emphasize how uncomfortable an inquiry might get.

John Rainey, the man who got this ball rolling by suing Haley, summed it up well: "After meeting in secret, the committee only held a 'public' session long enough to dismiss this complaint on a party-line vote. It defies all reason or sense of justice that just moments before the committee dismissed the case it voted unanimously that probable cause existed to investigate. 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."

Rainey had accused Haley of illegally lobbying on behalf of Lexington Medical Center as it worked to gain state approval for an open-heart surgery center. He also claimed she exploited her House seat by soliciting donations from lobbyists and companies for the hospital's foundation.

Ethics Committee members decided Haley's activities were not lobbying, The (Columbia) State newspaper reported. Instead, they said she was advocating for a hospital in her district -- a practice common among lawmakers.

"We discussed whether it was above and beyond anything any of us would do in that situation to help out our district," said Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland. "We decided it was appropriate."

That, too, is a telling statement that should give us all pause.

The bottom line is that a process conducted in secret by a committee of insiders is flawed. More than vague language in a statute needs to be changed. The whole system for investigating ethics charges levied against lawmakers should be overhauled.