Haley's attorneys tried to get ethics charges dropped

abeam@thestate.comAugust 15, 2013 

— Days after Gov. Nikki Haley’s ethics charges became public, the executive director of the State Ethics Commission wrote Haley’s attorney to say “we can put this to bed quickly.”

But what followed was 14 months of secret negotiations as Haley’s attorneys tried repeatedly to have the commission dismiss charges that she did not provide addresses for all of her campaign donors, only to be rebuffed each time by the five members on the governor-appointed commission, according to 60 pages of emails released Thursday.

“We are willing to work with you, but, like it or not, there have been violations,” Herbert Hayden, the commission’s executive director, wrote to Haley’s attorney, Butch Bowers, nearly a month after the charges became public. “Whether the Governor was aware of them or whether they were unintentional, her campaign has not complied with the requirements of the law.”

The commission fined Haley $3,500 in July and issued her a “public warning” for not including the addresses of eight campaign donors to her 2010 campaign for governor. Haley paid the fine from her campaign account and has donated the $4,176.78 in disputed contributions to the Children’s Trust Fund, as state law requires.

The Ethics Commission scheduled a public hearing on the charges for July 18, 2012, but canceled it because Haley’s office wanted to resolve the charges without a hearing – a common way of disposing of such cases.

But the emails suggest the commission was frustrated by how long it took to resolve the case. Finally almost a year later on June 13, 2013, Hayden wrote to Bowers, that he was “getting pressure from the Commission” to resolve the issue. Hayden finally gave Haley an ultimatum: sign the order by the close of business on July 10, or the commission would hold a public hearing.

Haley delivered the signed order on the deadline day.

Political candidates cannot use campaign contributions unless they have the name and address of the donor, a law meant to prevent fraud. If candidates can’t get the name and address of the donor within seven days of receiving the contribution, the candidate must send the money to the Children’s Trust Fund, a public/private nonprofit created by the state legislature to aid child abuse prevention programs.

The investigation has had political overtones from the beginning. The woman who originally filed the complaint, Bridget Tripp, at the time was an employee of the S.C. Democratic Party. She now works as an assistant for state Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield, and Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw who is the likely 2014 Democratic nominee for governor. Tripp was represented by the law firm of Dick Harpootlian, who at the time was the chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party.

Haley’s attorney accused Sheheen of making the same mistakes. Bowers wrote on May 16, 2012, that “it is not uncommon for candidates to have less-than-perfect compliance with the requirements,” pointing out that “our research has revealed that at least four of the Democratic candidates for statewide office in 2010” – including Sheheen, Haley’s 2010 opponent – “lacked all of the required information for occupations or addresses.”

Bowers used the argument to explain why the commission should dismiss Haley’s charges because the campaign had used its “best efforts” to obtain the information. “Otherwise, the commission would be spending an inordinate amount of time issuing and investigating complaints for these minor, technical issues.”

Hayden replied that the commission was looking at other candidates and would make decisions on a “case by case basis.”

Attempts to reach Hayden on Thursday were unsuccessful. Kristin Sosanie, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Democratic Party, said the ethics commission has not investigated the state senator’s campaign contributions.

On Dec. 10, Hayden suggested Haley’s attorney add language to the order saying “in view of the Governor’s concern with ethics reform and transparency, by paying the fine and donating the anonymous contributions to the Children’s Trust Fund, she is setting an example for all others to follow” and it “would keep anyone from accusing her of being hypocritical.”

Chris Kenney, an attorney who worked with Harpootlian to represent Tripp, said he was concerned about Hayden giving “political advice to Nikki Haley about what’s in her best interest,” asking: “Who is looking out for the public on this arrangement?”

Rob Godfrey, the governor’s campaign spokesman, said Haley’s camp did not discuss potential political repercussions with the commission and did not want the commission to consider those repercussions when making its decision.

CLICK HERE to download a PDF of the emails and other documents

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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