If a panel of South Carolina House members decides to open a formal probe into whether Gov. Nikki Haley illegally lobbied while a state representative, its investigation will be open to the public.
The Republican-controlled House on Tuesday unanimously passed a rule change that opens up House Ethics Committee hearings to the public if that committee’s six members find there is probable cause of wrongdoing.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, ethics hearings were closed to the public. In the past, the committee’s House members met behind closed doors to discuss allegations and decide whether current or former House members – including Haley, a former Lexington state representative – were guilty of ethics violations. If the committee found there was a violation, it then decided whether to publicly censure or fine the member.
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House Republicans pushed the rule change through Tuesday.
While they share the same party label, there is no love lost between Republican Haley and GOP legislators, many of whom Haley rips in new memoir as good ol’ boy, anti-reform sycophants.
But House leaders denied the reform was directed at Haley, who repeatedly has denied allegations that she lobbied while a member of the House, claims alleged in a dismissed lawsuit. Instead, House leaders say the change simply makes the House rule the same as the state Senate rule.
“It has nothing to do with any individual,” said state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, a member of the House Rules Committee. “It’s something we’ve been wanting to get to for a long time.”
A spokesman for House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, whom Haley singles out for particular criticism in her memoir, also said the rule change is not directed at any person, adding it has been in the works for more than a year.
“We take the speaker at his word that today’s change has nothing to do with the governor,” said Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman.
House Democrats said they did not know if the rules change was aimed at Haley but added they were pleased it will affect her should an investigation be launched.
“For somebody that talks the game of transparency, she should be all about this rules change,” said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, referring to Haley’s gubernatorial campaign pledge to increase government transparency. “She should have opened any investigation up (to the public) without this change being made.”
The new rule, which does not require further action before going into effect, also makes it clear that subjects of House investigations can waive confidentiality and open investigations to the public.
It is unknown if an investigation into the allegations against Haley has been launched.
State Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, would not comment Tuesday on whether an ethics complaint has been filed against Haley. House rules do not allow committee members to acknowledge receipt of a complaint.
However, in a lawsuit dismissed last month, GOP fundraiser John Rainey alleged Haley used her position in the House to benefit Lexington Medical, where she was paid more than $100,000 a year, and Wilbur Smith, which paid Haley $42,500 as a consultant.
Rainey’s lawsuit, filed by the head of the S.C. Democratic Party, was dismissed by a judge who said the issues raised should be decided by the House Ethics Committee, not a court. The judge did not rule on the merits of Rainey’s allegations.