A lawsuit claiming Gov. Nikki Haley violated state ethics laws was dismissed Wednesday. But the allegations against the first-term Republican governor yet could find new legs.
Fifth Circuit Judge Casey Manning dismissed the suit, filed by Republican activist and fundraiser John Rainey. Manning ruled circuit court is not the appropriate venue to examine ethics issues.
Rainey -- the state’s top economic forecaster under former Gov. Mark Sanford, Haley’s onetime political mentor -- claimed Haley used her office while a S.C. House member for personal gain by lobbying for Lexington Medical Center and Wilbur Smith Associates.
In his order, Manning said Rainey’s claims deal with state ethics violations, an arena a circuit court does not have authority over. Such claims should be examined by the State Ethics Commission or House Ethics Committee, Manning wrote.
A complaint will be filed soon with the House Ethics Committee, a source close to the proceedings said Wednesday.
Rainey declined to comment Wednesday. But his attorney, Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said it is time the public got answers on lingering questions about Haley.
“These allegations have been out there for a year, and nobody has looked into them,” Harpootlian said, adding he has filed a motion asking Manning to reconsider his ruling. If that fails, Harpootlian said he will appeal.
Haley’s office said she has answered all questions and applauded the dismissal.
“This was a purely political stunt by a bitter has-been and his Democrat friends,” said Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman, in a statement. “Rainey and his lawyer, Dick Harpootlian, need to stop wasting the courts' time and money on totally frivolous, nonsense lawsuits, and let the courts and the governor focus on the business of running the state.”
Rainey -- or anyone else -- could file a complaint with the S.C. House Ethics Committee regarding Haley. Committee members stand as “judge and jury” over the cases that they agree to take up, said state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, chairman of the panel. Roland said Wednesday he could not comment on whether a complaint has been filed regarding Haley.
The State Ethics Commission also could take up the complaint. Should it find concerns, the commission could forward the matter to the state Attorney General’s Office. Efforts Wednesday to reach Ethics Commission officials were unsuccessful.
Lexington Medical Center
In a lawsuit filed in November, Rainey accused Haley of illegally lobbying for the Lexington Medical Center and also soliciting donations from lobbyists to benefit the hospital’s foundation.
Haley and hospital officials have said the Lexington Republican worked as a fundraiser for the hospital’s foundation from 2008 to 2010, earning $110,000 a year. She left the job in spring 2010 as she was preparing to run for governor. E-mails from that period show hospital officials were having difficulty reaching Haley and asked her to take a leave of absence. Haley sued and negotiated a $35,210 settlement with the hospital.
Rainey’s lawsuit claims Haley lobbied the state Department of Health and Environment Control on behalf of the hospital as it worked to gain approval for an open-heart surgery center.
Haley’s job had nothing to do with the heart center, hospital officials have said. In a June 2010 interview with The State, Haley said her job involved event planning, public relations work, outreach to doctors and seeking out members to join the foundation.
“I would go and arrange the events and get sponsorship for the event,” Haley told The State. “You're looking for not only new members to join your foundation but also looking for sponsors for events.”
But Rainey’s lawsuit questioned whether Haley also was lobbying to get a heart center approved for the hospital.
In an August 2008 email Haley sent to Lexington Medical chief executive Mike Biediger about a heart-center meeting, Haley wrote: “We have some work to do not only to switch votes but to hold the ones we have. We are as close as we are going to get and can’t afford to leave one stone unturned. … Fingers crossed!”
Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman, said Wednesday the email is no smoking gun. Haley simply was supporting the hospital as did every other Lexington County lawmaker, he said.
“Her job as a foundation fundraiser for the hospital had nothing to do with the heart center. Her job as a House member from Lexington County did,” Godfrey said.
After her hiring by Lexington Medical, Haley never voted on the heart center. The center was approved last year.
Questions about Farmer’s Market
Rainey’s lawsuit also accused Haley of failing to sit out votes that benefitted her employers and not explaining why she did sit out one particular vote.
Haley abstained on a 2007 vote to override then-Gov. Sanford’s veto of $14.8 million for a proposed new farmer’s market in Richland County. In the House journal, Haley said she abstained because she might have a conflict of interest.
Records show Haley was paid $42,500 from 2007 to 2009 by Wilbur Smith, a Midlands engineering firm that has received state contracts and was involved in planning for a Richland County farmer’s market. (Plans for the Richland site eventually were scrapped and the market was built in Lexington County.)
Godfrey said Wednesday Haley had no role “at all” in Wilbur Smith’s work on the farmer's market project but chose not to vote in an abundance of caution. “In the spirit of better to be safe, she recused herself from the vote,” he said.
A company official has said the firm hired Haley because of her connections, hoping she would help track down potential business leads.
“Periodically, we hire folks who have good contacts,” said Wilbur Smith vice president Robert Ferrell in June 2010.
Haley has said her work for the firm involved working on private and some municipal projects but not state government-related projects.