5 witnesses say Haley did nothing wrong

ashain@thestate.comJune 28, 2012 

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Five witnesses, including executives from her former employers, testified at a S.C. House Ethics Committee hearing on Thursday that Gov. Nikki Haley did not lobby or pressure them to make donations when she was a representative from Lexington County.

She is accused of lobbying and using her office to benefit her employers -- the Lexington Medical Center Foundation, where she was a $110,000-a-year fundraiser, and the Columbia-based Wilbur Smith Associates engineering firm, where she was paid $48,000 as a consultant.

Haley, who was a House member from 2005-10 before being elected governor, faces a reprimand or having her case referred to the S.C. Attorney General.

Haley was hired in business development in 2006 to use her contacts to find new private work for Wilbur Smith and Associates, said Robert Ferrell, vice president for the company who met the governor while serving on a chamber of commerce board.

Haley was told she was not hired to lobby on behalf of the firm, he said. She also did not help Wilbur Smith settle a dispute with the S.C. Department of Agriculture over engineering work done at a proposed State Farmers Market site in Richland County.

“It was a passive position,” Ferrell said, “Just keep your eyes and ears open if your hear something” about private business.

But Haley did not win any new work for the firm in her 23-month stint, he said, Haley was let go in 2008 because of the souring economy dried up potential work, not over her performance, Ferrell said.

A trio of officials from Lexington Medical Center said Haley did not cross the line from her job raising money for its foundation.

Thad Westbrook, former Lexington Medical chairman and current vice chairman of its foundation, said he was not aware of Haley aiding Lexington Medical’s efforts to win a heart surgery center as a lawmaker.

Lexington Medical chairman Dan Jones, a former lobbyist for the medical center now working for Time Warner Cable, said Haley approached him in 2008 about raising cable company’s $5,000 donation to the foundation. The company could not at the time, he said.

Jones, who also gave a personal donation to the foundation, said Haley never offered to swap political favors in exchange for contributions and he never felt pressure to give money.

“Ethically that’s just not the thing you do,” he said.

Former State Rep, Billy Boan, who has been a lobbyist for Lexington Medical for the past five years, said he did not coordinate lobbying efforts with Haley and was not aware of her lobbying.

Boan said all members of the Lexington County delegation were interested in the heart center, but Haley did not do anything more than other lawmakers. Boan said Haley did not request donations from him to the hospital foundation.

In his testimony, Earl Hunter, former state Department of Health and Environmental Control commissioner, recalled being contacted by Sens. Jake Knotts and Nikki Setzler, who represent Lexington County, about the heart center but not Haley.

Attorneys representing the House said the case is focusing on seven allegations against Haley, when she was a state representative from Lexington. The allegations were made by GOP activist John Rainey, who chaired the state Board of Economic Advisors under Gov, Mark Sanford.

Haley is accused of using her office for personal gain and to help her employers, failing to properly fill out economic disclosure statements, failing to disclose conflicts of interest while casting a vote and lobbying while serving as a lawmaker,

In his opening statement, Butch Bowers, one of the attorneys representing Haley, compared John Rainey to the Chickenhawk character on Looney Tunes, who is duped and keeps believing that a dog is a chicken.

“He’s misinformed, misguided and mistaken,” Bowers said.”Just because he says it with conviction, doesn’t mean it’s true.”

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