COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s highest court is considering the appeal of a Republican activist whose ethics complaints against Gov. Nikki Haley have wound through the state’s legislative and judicial systems but so far have been found to be without merit.
On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court plans to hear the case of John Rainey, a longtime GOP activist who sued Haley in 2011. Rainey said that Haley, while a GOP House member representing Lexington, had done improper lobbying while also working as a hospital fundraiser and in business development for a highway engineering firm.
The complaint also asked whether it was illegal for Haley to seek tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists for the hospital’s foundation while legislators were in session.
But a circuit judge threw out Rainey’s case last year, saying such issues weren’t up to a court to decide and instead should be handled by the House Ethics Committee. Rainey appealed that decision but also filed a parallel complaint with the House panel, which is empowered by state law to investigate complaints against that chamber’s members.
The panel initially dismissed the complaint but later reopened it and held hearings last summer in its first-ever inquiry into a sitting governor.
Haley herself took the stand, telling lawmakers she did nothing wrong in her previous jobs as a fundraiser for the Lexington Medical Center Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds the hospital’s health care programs, and as a consultant for engineering firm Wilbur Smith Associates.
Haley, the state’s first woman and first minority governor, also called Rainey a “racist, sexist bigot” for comments he made about terrorism to her during her 2010 gubernatorial bid. Haley, the child of immigrants and who grew up in the rural town of Bamberg’s only Indian-American family, said Rainey insulted her family when he said during a meeting he didn’t want to back her for governor, only to discover later that she was related to terrorists.
Rainey, who convinced former Gov. Mark Sanford to run years ago and later was his Board of Economic Advisors chairman, said he wanted to make sure that the next future governor he backed didn’t wind up in a scandal, as Sanford did when he had an affair.
Committee members said the state’s ethics laws are ambiguous and pledged to push for reform.
After the ordeal, legislators pledged to work toward reforming state ethics laws, and Haley also formed a panel to look into the issue.
Rainey called the hearings a farce. In his appellate court briefs, Rainey stressed the importance of the court deciding his case, particularly given Haley’s assertion in some House Ethics filings that her activities were “commonplace” among her fellow legislators.
“Respondent’s everyone-is-doing-it defense demonstrates the need for a judicial declaration as to the limits on member conduct imposed by the Ethics Act,” Rainey’s attorneys wrote.
In their own Supreme Court briefs, Haley’s lawyers argued that private citizens can’t seek declaratory judgment on a criminal action, as Rainey had done.
“Members of the citizenry do not have standing to invoke a court’s jurisdiction for purposes of seeking a declaration that another has violated criminal laws, and the circuit court correctly put an end to the Appellant’s misuse of the state Judiciary,” they wrote.
Haley’s office has predicted another dismissal, and her lawyers say the issue is moot anyway since the House Ethics Committee cleared the governor in its own proceedings. Spokesman Rob Godfrey said Rainey – who is represented by attorney Dick Harpootlian, current state Democratic Party chairman – has a political vendetta against the governor and is wasting taxpayer money.