House Ethics Committee gets a second chance

The House Ethics Committee has an opportunity to restore its credibility by reopening the inquiry into Gov. Nikki Haley's actions while a member of the House.

The committee is expected Friday to take up a resolution introduced Tuesday by Rep. James E. Smith, D-Richland, that asks it to reconsider its dismissal of an ethics complaint against Haley.

The resolution points out that the committee found there was enough evidence to investigate the allegations, but then dismissed the complaint without doing so. It calls for a "full and complete vetting of the facts."

That is warranted even if the charges prove to be false. The governor is ill served by an incomplete investigation. She and the public deserve that "complete vetting of the facts."

The resolution calls on the House to ask the House Ethics Committee to reopen the investigation, but its first stop in the legislative process is the committee. It has the ball again, and members should not fumble it.

John Rainey, the Anderson attorney who filed a lawsuit against Haley claiming she violated ethics laws, has asked the full House to consider his charges. Rainey says the Ethics Committee didn't do enough to investigate whether Haley violated state law by seeking donations from lobbyists for the Lexington Medical Center Foundation while they had issues before her subcommittee and whether Haley lobbied the state Department of Health and Environmental Control on behalf of the medical center as it sought permission for a new open-heart surgery center. Rainey also says Haley didn't properly disclose her consulting work for Wilbur Smith Associates, a company that has state contracts.

A very troubling aspect of this affair is that the committee voted unanimously that there was probable cause to investigate the allegations, but then voted 5-1 to do nothing more. The House had voted 98-0 the day before to open up investigations if probable cause was determined.

In his appeal, Rainey cites state law on what should have happened next: "If the ethics committee determines a complaint alleges facts sufficient to constitute a violation, it shall promptly investigate the alleged violation and may compel by subpoena ... the testimony of witnesses and the production of pertinent books and papers."

Instead, the committee only looked at the complaint against Haley and her response to it. That might be enough to establish probable cause, but it hardly constitutes a full investigation.

If there were no reason to continue the investigation beyond the preliminary stages, the committee could have dismissed the complaint without a public hearing.

Their contradictory actions lead us to conclude that they not only wanted to clear Haley, but also wanted to do it publicly.

A main point of Haley's defense also is troubling, and it's one that Rainey points out in his appeal. Her attorney states that Haley's actions were "commonplace" in the legislature and within the law. To find otherwise would impugn the integrity of other lawmakers and prominent companies in the state.

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.

Absent a full investigation, it is Haley and the Ethics Committee who impugn the legislature's integrity.

"Haley's everyone-is-doing-it defense stains the integrity of this body and all honest public servants," Rainey states in his appeal.

A full investigation, conducted in the open, is the only way to establish whether Haley acted appropriately and within the law. It would also provide important guidance for lawmakers.

The Ethics Committee and the House can set this right. It is not too late.