Opinion

July 24, 2014

An alternative explanation for Ethics Commission gag?

Most of the speculation about why Gov. Nikki Haley’s new pick as Ethics Commission chairman decided to gag the agency’s outspoken attorney has a directive coming either directly or indirectly from the governor. You may recall that when the governor took a trip to North Carolina last year for what she called an official event, Cathy Hazelwood begged to differ, called it a political event and said the governor needed to repay the state for the cost. The disagreement didn’t end there, but you get the picture.

Most of the speculation about why Gov. Nikki Haley’s new pick as Ethics Commission chairman decided to gag the agency’s outspoken attorney has a directive coming either directly or indirectly from the governor. You may recall that when the governor took a trip to North Carolina last year for what she called an official event, Cathy Hazelwood begged to differ, called it a political event and said the governor needed to repay the state for the cost. The disagreement didn’t end there, but you get the picture.

I’m not dismissing the possibility that the governor’s office suggested that Columbia attorney James Burns address that “problem,” or that he took it upon himself to do that. Nor am I dismissing the possibility that Mr. Burns simply thought it was inappropriate for the agency’s attorney to be so free-wheeling with her impressions about the activities of politicians of all political stripes, sometimes based solely on what a reporter knows about the situation.

But another thought occurred to me when I read Eva Moore’s piece earlier this week about a letter that Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s attorney had written to the Ethics Commission, in which he “claims the mayor twice consulted commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood about whether he should report a 2010 trip to Florida as a gift, and was told he didn’t need to.”

The article went on to recount the contents of the letter, and the trip that we all learned about during the federal corruption trial of former Benjamin business partner Jonathan Pinson, and how The Free Times had contacted Ms. Hazelwood about that trip, and Ms. Hazelwood said that, yes, absolutely, Mr. Benjamin should have reported it on his annual statement of economic interest.

Then I got to the part where Ms. Moore wrote, “Unfortunately, we can’t ask Hazelwood about her take on these conversations,” and suddenly it occurred to me that her comments on that case could have led to or at least played a role in that decision.

When I mentioned this to my colleague Warren Bolton, he seemed surprised that I hadn’t thought of that from the start, as he had. Which sort of goes to show how easy it is to fall into the trap of believing that the world revolves around that piece of it that we follow most closely.

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