COLUMBIA, S.C. The state Supreme Court Wednesday dismissed an ethics complaint against Gov. Nikki Haley, ending a Camden attorney's years-long effort to bring criminal charges against the Republican governor.
John Rainey a prominent Republican fundraiser and former chief economic forecaster under former GOP Gov. Mark Sanford had argued that Haley used her position while a Lexington state representative for personal gain, lobbying for Lexington Medical Center, where she was a fundraiser, and Wilbur Smith Associates, where she was a paid consultant.
Rainey first filed a lawsuit in circuit court, but a judge threw it out, saying the House Ethics Committee not a court was the correct place to hear the allegations. Rainey then filed a complaint with the GOP-controlled Ethics Committee, which cleared Republican Haley twice. Those hearings included testimony from Haley a first for a sitting governor. Rainey then asked the Supreme Court to declare the circuit court was wrong to dismiss his lawsuit. The high court unanimously upheld the lower court's ruling Wednesday.
"Every court and every legislative body that has looked at these bogus claims against Governor Haley has determined that they are without merit. Now, the Supreme Court has joined in that view, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a written statement. "While even a Supreme Court ruling will likely not stop Gov. Haley's determined political opponents from continuing to make false charges against her, the people of South Carolina see that for what it is.
Democrats argued Haley was claiming "victory after finding a loophole.
"Today's decision in no way excused Nikki Haley's use of her public office for personal gain, said Kristin Sosanie, spokeswoman for the S.C. Democratic Party. "Nikki Haley is one of the worst examples of exactly why we need ethics reform in South Carolina.
Rainey said he was disappointed by the court's decision. But, he added, he "respect(s) the court's judicial process and the court's responsibility to decide each case in good conscious.
"And I would be remiss if I didn't follow up with a quote from Forrest Gump': And that's all I have to say about that,' Rainey said.
While the decision to dismiss the case was unanimous, the court did not agree on why it should be dismissed.
The majority Associate Justices John Kittredge and Costa Pleicones, and Chief Justice Jean Toal said only the Legislature, not the courts can investigate ethics complaints against state lawmakers. The only exception, they said, is if an ethics complaint is filed within 50 days of an election.
"A court's exercise of jurisdiction over (Rainey's) ethical complaint against Governor Haley would not only contravene the clear language of the State Ethics Act, it would also violate separation of powers, Kittredge wrote. "In sum, ethics investigations concerning members and staff of the Legislature are intended to be solely within the Legislature's purview, to the exclusion of the courts, except within 50 days of an election, as specified in state law.
Two other associate justices Donald Beatty and Kaye Hearn said they think the courts have jurisdiction over ethics complaints. But, they added, Rainey, a private citizen, could not file what amounted to criminal charges. Beatty wrote Rainey was seeking to "criminally prosecute Haley, something only the state attorney general can do.
"If we were to permit this type of relief, (Haley) would be denied her constitutional right to a jury trial, Beatty wrote in a separate opinion. "Although (Rainey) was not the proper party to pursue the criminal action, his concern for the public was not without recourse as the attorney general's office ... could have sought a criminal determination of the alleged misconduct.
The ruling comes as lawmakers are debating whether to strengthen the state's ethics laws, an issue that has become politically polarized.
Democrats say Haley's behavior is the chief reason that the state needs ethics reform. Meanwhile, Haley's office has pointed to Democrats as a "real-world reason that reform is needed, noting the case of former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who resigned last month during a Senate Ethics Committee hearing.
While an ethics reform bill passed the House, the Senate adjourned last week without taking it up this year. However, the Senate can continue debate in January.
John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause, said Wednesday's court ruling highlights why lawmakers need to change the state's ethics laws.
"The majority says that existing law gives the legislative Ethics Committee exclusive jurisdiction, Crangle said. "What we need in the new ethics act is an amendment that clarifies and says the legislative ethics committees do not have exclusive jurisdiction over ethics complaints.
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