The House Ethics Committee which holds the fate of Gov. Nikki Haley in its hands is not a highly sought-after committee for House members.
Its six members are House worker bees, not House superstars. They do not often garner headlines for proposing bold initiatives. And their committee work, until recently, was conducted behind closed doors, which shielded them from public scrutiny and the media glare.
Now, the six members are in the brightest of legislative spotlights, conducting the biggest investigation of their committee careers in a room filled with TV cameras, critical lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle and consultants some Haley allies, some Haley foes.
Their charge: to pass judgment on one of the most prominent Republicans in the state. Its not an easy task for the committees five Republicans.
This is by far the biggest case weve ever had, probably ever will, said Committee Chairman Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, a retired Pentecostal pastor who leads his fellow Republican House members in prayer during their Tuesday morning caucus meetings.
In a typical legislative session, the committee hears seven or eight cases, most dealing with alleged technical violations: a House member failing to fill out a required ethics form or filling out a form incorrectly. In some of the cases, the committees staff resolves the issue, never involving the committee members at all.
But when committee members are called into action to decide whether a violation has occurred, they push aside political pressure and dig deep for the facts, said Smith, a retired mail carrier who worked a rural Aiken County route.
Ive always believed in being honest even if it hurts, Smith said who was elected to the committee in 1991 by his fellow House members. And thats what were going to do with this investigation. Our goal is to resolve the issue. Were not out to get anybody, and were not going to let anyone get away with anything either. Were seeking the truth.
The truth will be determined, in large part, by state statute.
The committee must interpret state law to decide whether Haleys work for an engineering firm and a hospital foundation while she served in the House constituted lobbying an illegal activity for a lawmaker. Haley and her attorneys have said she never lobbied and have provided sworn statements from the top brass of the companies, saying she never lobbied.
The committee members include only one attorney, Rep. Laurie Funderburk, also the committees sole Democrat. Funderburk worked for Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, during his 2010 gubernatorial bid against Haley. Sheheen lost 51 percent to 47 percent.
Funderburk, known by her fellow House members as smart and even-keeled, said she has no political vendetta against Haley and is only interested in ensuring the ethics probe is thorough and the ethics committee process is followed.
Earlier this week, she sent a letter to Smith, requesting that the committee call witnesses and take sworn testimony in the case.
Only by an objective and impartial review of testimonial and documentary evidence can we ensure the integrity of the process, Funderburk wrote.
The committee members agreed with Funderburk on Wednesday, reopening the case and promising to call witnesses to testify before them under oath. This comes mere weeks after the committee dismissed the charges against Haley.
If committee members need more legal help, they can get it. In addition to its one staff attorney, members can request that other House attorneys and researchers provide assistance too. They could also ask the state attorney generals office for its legal opinion.
In over their heads?
But at least one committee member said the case has become too big and should be forwarded onto the states top lawyer, Attorney General Alan Wilson, to investigate.
Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland, a former TV host whos spent the past 15 years in elected office including five years on the ethics committee, said she and the other committee members are not trained criminal investigators.
Once the committee finishes taking testimony from witnesses, Brady said she plans to make a motion that the complaint be forwarded to Wilson for review.
Brady, a moderate Republican known for her attention to social issues, is in a potentially tough race against Democrat Beth Bernstein in Novembers election. Bernstein has accused Brady of protecting Haley after Brady and the committees four other Republicans voted to dismiss the charges against the governor.
Voters in Bradys district voters are moderates and they expect tough questions to be posed to Haley, say political observers..
But Brady said her re-election bid has nothing to do with her new recommendation to send the case to Wilson.
For me, there is no politics involved. Ive always been vocal, Brady said.
The rules of the game have changed some say for politically motivated reasons that make it impossible for Haley to get a fair hearing.
The House voted on May 2 to open the ethics committees proceedings to the public and media if probable cause of wrongdoing was found.
The next day, the committee voted that probable cause had been found in the Haley case, then voted to dismiss the case.
Smells kind of funny, dont it? said Rep. Mike Pitts, a Republican from Laurens who also sits on the ethics committee, when asked about the Houses haste in passing the rule the day before Haleys case was dismissed.
Pitts is sympathetic about the scrutiny Haley is receiving and questions whether politics can be pushed aside so that a fair decision can be reached.
If she werent the seated governor, this case wouldnt have generated near this much attention. Its become very political, said Pitts, a retired law enforcement officer known around the State House as the instructor for concealed weapons permits.
Some say the change was made to open the Haley case to the public. Others say the rule change had nothing to do with the governor.
But now committee members are taking questions from the media and public about business that used to be confidential.
Theyve also taken tough questions from some of their fellow lawmakers about how the committee could find probable cause, then dismiss the case.
Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence and a committee member, said probable cause was only found so that the process would be opened up to the public not because members believe Haley broke the law.
Democrats have targeted Lowes membership on the committee, claiming he should recuse himself from participating in the investigation because Lowes business partner has a pending case before a state agency that reports directly to Haley.
Lowe and nearly all of the House waved off the proposition. And Lowe, a physical therapist, continues to serve.
But Haleys office contends the ethics committees rules have been thrown out the window, including its decision to reopen the case.
The committee did its job and dismissed this case a month ago whats been frustrating is that there have been few rules governing this process since and what rules existed have been constantly changing, said Rob Godfrey, Haleys spokesman. But we will continue to provide whatever the committee asks and the governor will continue to focus on jobs, the economy and finishing the session strong.
Haley, too, has made claims of improper political influence. Last week, the Lexington Republican charged that House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, was working behind the scenes to encourage further and unnecessary digging in the case.
Harrell denied the claim and returned fire, questioning why Haley was so afraid of a full investigation if she really had nothing to hide.
The whole situation has convinced some House members that the process of lawmakers investigating lawmakers and former lawmakers needs to end.
Its the fox guarding the henhouse, said Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington. He plans to introduce legislation next week requiring an outside entity, the state Ethics Commission, to investigate complaints against lawmakers and, when warranted, recommend fines and punishments that the General Assembly would approve or reject.
The public is not going to believe (the House ethics committee) is being critical even if they are being critical, Quinn said. We need to make some changes to protect the integrity of the process.
Heres a look at the six House Ethics Committee members who will decide if Gov. Nikki Haley illegally lobbied when she served in the House:
What the committee can do
The House Ethics Committee will take testimony from witnesses in coming weeks on allegations that Gov. Nikki Haley illegally lobbied when she was a House member. Then, they could decide to:
• Clear her of allegations that she illegally lobbied -- as they originally did earlier this month. OR
• Determine she broke the law and levy a fine or publicly reprimand Haley. OR
• Punt the investigation to state Attorney General Alan Wilson. But committee members would first have to find evidence of criminal activity.
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.