Gov. Nikki Haley used her second inaugural address Wednesday to press S.C. lawmakers to pass ethics reform in the wake of recent scandals.
Haley did not name anyone. But her speech on the State House steps came on the same day that former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, pleaded guilty to misconduct in office and three months after former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigned amid charges of misusing campaign money.
“(T)here is no question that the events of recent times, the revelation of the misuses of public funds, public office, and worst of all, the public trust, have shaken the very soul of our state,” the Lexington Republican said as legislators sat directly in front of her. “The people of South Carolina deserve more from us. They deserve honest service, the kind of service propelled not by a hunger for self-indulgence but by a heart full of grace.”
On a damp, chilly day, Haley said legislative debates of ethics reform proposals have focused too much on keeping elected officials comfortable.
“It is not merely the titles and the pageantry of public office that we accept (as elected officials), but the trust that our friends and neighbors have committed to us,” she said. “Some have ignored that responsibility. Some have abused that trust. It is both our opportunity and our duty to restore to the people of South Carolina their faith in their government. This is not about us. It is about them.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, also used part of his speech during the ceremony to call for ethics reform, saying he expects historic changes this year.
“Many see a tarnished image of our government today,” he said. “This image must be confronted and must be repaired. Only by working in concert under the umbrella of honesty and cooperation can we restore the dignity of the government we lead.”
An ethics reform bill passed in the S.C. House last year but failed to get a final vote in the Senate on the session’s last day. Top lawmakers in both chambers have made updating laws on the conduct of public officials a priority in the new session that started this week.
Former Gov. David Beasley said he was a little surprised Haley made ethics reform, a serious issue, a major subject of her speech Wednesday. Inaugural speeches tend to be heavier on lofty goals and lighter on policy than the governor’s annual State of the State address, which takes place next Wednesday.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, that was right there, wasn’t it?’ ” said Beasley, a Society Hill Republican, who was one of three former governors to attend Haley’s inauguration. “I was a little caught with it, but it’s something she feels strongly about. It’s her inaugural address.”
Haley has been involved in ethics controversies herself.
She was cleared of accusations of using her position as a House member for personal gain while working as a consultant. As governor, Haley has repaid the state for using the state plane to attend news conferences and agreed to repay the state for using the official vehicles for political events.
“She’s like (former baseball star) Barry Bonds talking about reforming performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. It doesn’t make any sense,” House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said after the speech. “It's a smokescreen. It takes people’s eyes off the ball of (roads) funding, which we desperately need, (and) of education funding that we desperately need.”
Haley has said her brushes with ethics issues motivated her to push for changes in state laws, including ending the practice of lawmakers investigating their colleagues and widening the required disclosure of public officials’ sources of income. Both proposals are before the Legislature.
Ethics were an obvious target for Haley, who won re-election last year by a wide 14.5 percent margin, lawmakers said.
“This is low-hanging fruit, easy to pick from,” said Senate Ethics Committee chairman Luke Rankin, a Horry Republican who supports some changes in laws governing public officials. “All of us live in glass houses.”
However, in her inaugural speech, Haley also said most of the public officials in the the crowd of about 1,800 people could claim rightfully the label of public servant.
“(M)any – most – would be right to make that claim, for your service is true, your motives honorable,” Haley said, adding the recent ethics scandals have compromised the public’s trust in government.
“Given what we have been through, I certainly was not offended by her remarks,” said new House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. “But I know all the people I serve with are very reputable people, and they want to get ethics reform done as quickly as she does.”
Haley spent part of her 10-minute address touting the economic successes of her first term and her efforts to make state government more responsive and responsible.
“We have stood tall against a federal government insistent on making it harder for our people to achieve the American dream,” said Haley, who broke barriers as South Carolina’s first female and first minority governor.
Haley, who at 42 remains the nation’s youngest governor, acknowledged perception of her has changed since was elected in 2010, a relative unknown in statewide politics. Now, she is known nationally within the GOP, a stature that brought New Jersey Gov. Christie, a potential Republican presidential candidate, to Wednesday’s ceremony.
“I am not unaware that four years ago, when I spoke for the first time as governor, there was some skepticism. It was not unfounded,” Haley said. “I was young. I was unknown. I was different. But I knew in my heart then, as I know now, what South Carolina could be.”
Haley said she wants all South Carolinians to have the same opportunities.
“In the South Carolina I dream of, a daughter of Dillon starts each day with the same hope and possibility as a son of Greenville,” she said. “In that South Carolina, we are competing not just with North Carolina and Georgia, but with India and China. And in that South Carolina, every little girl and every little boy dreams as big as I do, and does so knowing every one of those dreams is within reach.”
Staff writer Jamie Self contributed to this report