By Paul Gable
The S.C. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear an appeal of whether a circuit court judge erred when he refused to hear a lawsuit concerning alleged ethics violations by Gov. Nikki Haley when she was a state legislator.
Judge Casey Manning ruled state courts were not the proper venue to hear alleged ethics violations. Rather he said ethics regulators should hear the case. The complaint was heard by the S.C. House Ethics Committee twice, behind closed doors in May and in open session in June. Both times, the committee excused Haley’s actions.
This case says everything that needs to be said about the lack of ethics in S.C. governments. The state Ethics Commission, which covers local governments and statewide offices, and the Senate and House ethics committees, which cover their respective legislative bodies, do a great job of levying fines for late filing. However, when substantive ethics issues come before them it turns into a circus.
In Haley’s case, complaints of ethics violations by Republican fundraiser John Rainey were never heard. The case against Haley was never presented. A total of 11 “witnesses” came before committee members providing testimony to exonerate Haley, without any substantive cross examination. Joe Stalin’s show trials in the 1930’s Soviet Union weren’t stage managed this well.
Haley was exonerated by the committee, but anyone who actually watched the proceedings had to come away disgusted. Oversight of legislator ethics by other legislators is a no win situation for the citizens of South Carolina. A nine member ethics commission appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the General Assembly is no better.
Even if the Supreme Court rules Manning erred, the next step is unclear. The Court could remand the lawsuit back to circuit court. So what? Legal proceedings involving public figures in South Carolina have a way of becoming very convoluted with little regard for the law. State court judges are elected by the General Assembly. Need we say more?
Rainey probably already achieved the only real impact he will have on Haley’s actions. He exposed them in the public arena. Now it will be up to voters in a couple of years to determine whether Haley deserves another term.
The ethics commission and ethics committees were established after Operation Lost Trust in the early 1990’s, but it must be remembered that was a federal investigation. Things like that just don’t happen at the state level.
Regardless of what happens when the Supreme Court hears this case, there will still be no ethics among South Carolina public figures because there will remain no substantive law or process to enforce it.