Haley ethics probe cost taxpayers $61k

Governor’s legal bill is another $50,000, which she is paying from campaign funds

ashain@thestate.comJuly 29, 2012 

  • More information Rep. Roland Smith, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, says he wishes that panel had heard from Haley accuser John Rainey. The Buzz wishes the panel had heard from two other witnesses.

Bill

Taxpayers and Gov. Nikki Haley have some hefty legal bills to pay after a historic S.C. House Ethics Committee hearing last month.

The combined legal costs from the two-day hearing are $111,010.60 – $61,010.60 for attorneys hired by the House of Representatives and $50,000 for the governor.

The hearings were worth the cost, said state Rep. Joan Brady, a R-Richland, who sits on the Ethics Committee. “I don’t know you can put a cost on the truth.”

The committee cleared the first-term Republican governor of charges of illegal lobbying and using her office for personal gain while she was a state representative from Lexington County.

The House paid two attorneys from the Willoughby & Hoefer law firm of Columbia, Ben Mustian and Tracey Green, to present the complaint against Haley, submitted by GOP activist John Rainey.

They were hired to provide the committee with experienced help in conducting an independent investigation during a first-of-its-kind case, said committee chairman Roland Smith, R-Aiken. Haley was the first sitting governor to face a House ethics probe.

But that help came at a cost to taxpayers.

Mustian and Green billed the committee $61,010.60, according to the House clerk’s office. The money will come from House operating funds.

The attorneys charged $225 an hour. For comparison, the median hourly rate for Southern lawyers in consumer law cases was $262 an hour last year, according to a study by the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center.

“That’s a lot of money from where I come from,” said state Rep. Smith. “The House wanted to do a thorough investigation and get the truth out there. … Mustian said, ‘We turned over every stone on this.’ He said they had done everything they could.”

Haley was charged $50,000 by her attorneys, Butch Bowers and Kevin Hall, of the Columbia office of the Womble Carlyle law firm, her office said.

The governor will pay the fee with campaign funds. Her campaign has nearly $1 million in hand, according to the latest campaign disclosure report that was released this month.

Haley’s office says Rainey should repay the cost of the attorneys hired by the House. "While the governor paid her legal fees out of her campaign, John Rainey’s obsessive, baseless, personal vendetta cost the taxpayers $61,000 – he’s a disgrace,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a statement last week.

Rainey declined comment last week. (However, in a mid-July letter, he called the House hearing “fundamentally dishonest and unjust,” adding he would continue his appeals through the courts.)

Rep. Smith said last week that he thought the committee could have learned from hearing testimony from Rainey, who was subpoenaed by Haley’s attorneys but never called as a witness. Haley attorney Bowers said after the hearing that Rainey had no direct knowledge to offer the committee.

Still, Smith said he thought Rainey could have given the committee insight into flaws in state disclosure laws. “We would have had a lot of questions for him.”

Smith also said he wished the committee had asked to hear witnesses when it first heard the case in May. However, he said the panel was told by House legal staff that testimony was not required.

Despite finding probable cause that ethics rules had been violated, the committee, meeting behind closed doors, cleared Haley in May. The panel reopened the case after objections were raised.

That led to a two-day hearing where nine witnesses, who were subpoenaed, said they were unaware of any wrongdoing by Haley while she was a fundraiser at Lexington Medical Center and a consultant with Columbia engineering firm Wilbur Smith Associates.

Haley testified as well, though she was not subpoenaed to avoid setting a precedent for future governors, her office said. The attorneys representing the House agreed to not subpoena Haley with the understanding the governor could take the stand in the case, her office said.

Haley testified she did not break ethics laws. She also repeated criticisms of Rainey that she previously included in her memoir. She called the Camden businessman and attorney a bigot, saying he wondered aloud if her family was related to terrorists during their only meeting, while Haley was running for governor.

Rainey has said he made the remark in jest, trying to make the point that he did not want surprises after another candidate he supported, Gov. Mark Sanford, was caught in an affair. Rainey also released a thank-you note that Haley sent him after their meeting.

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