COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — While serving in South Carolina’s state House, Gov. Nikki Haley was hired by a highway planning company to do what was characterized as “passive” business development work but brought in no new actual business, an executive at that company testified Thursday.
“You are to keep your eyes open, be cognizant of what’s going on around you when you go to social functions, when you go to business functions, and if you hear of opportunities … you let us know,” Robert Ferrell, vice president of the company once known as Wilbur Smith Associates, told the House Ethics Committee of the instructions given to Haley. “It was not a proactive, go knock on doors and start looking for work. It was, just be aware of what’s going on.”
The testimony was part of the panel’s first-ever investigation into a sitting governor. At issue are allegations that, as a state representative, Haley engaged in illegal lobbying while working as a consultant for Wilbur Smith and also as a hospital fundraiser.
During her roughly two years with Wilbur Smith, Haley — who originally sought a job in the firm’s accounting office but ended up doing business development — actually drummed up no new business for the firm, Ferrell testified. She was compensated $48,000.
Ferrell also testified that Haley wasn’t involved in discussions about the Wilbur Smith’s work with the state Department of Agriculture to develop a new State Farmers Market — a project that eventually fell apart and went to another firm, which developed the market in Lexington County. Instead, she was tasked with focusing more on developing business in the private sector, a division Ferrell said represents only about 5 percent of Wilbur Smith’s contracts.
Thad Westbrook, a Columbia attorney who serves on the board for the Lexington Medical Center Foundation, also testified that he didn’t specifically recall Haley participating in discussions about the hospital’s pursuit of certification for a heart hospital.
The Republican governor has consistently maintained since her 2010 gubernatorial campaign that she acted within the law in her work for Lexington Medical Center and Wilbur Smith. On Thursday, her attorney said that John Rainey, the longtime Republican activist whose complaint launched the committee’s investigation and Thursday’s hearing, was in the wrong.
“He’s misguided, he’s misinformed, and he’s mistaken,” Butch Bowers said. “Just because he says it with conviction doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Meeting in early May, the House Ethics Committee voted unanimously that it had found probable cause that a violation existed — a vote that opened the complaint to the public — then immediately voted along party lines to dismiss all charges against Haley.
Rainey appealed the case, a Democratic lawmaker asked the panel to reconsider and the committee reopened its probe. For the public hearing, committee members have issued a total of 11 subpoenas, among them Haley’s former bosses and the former commissioner of the state’s health agency, but no current lawmakers or Haley herself.
Haley’s defense includes that her work on the hospital’s open-heart center application was for her constituents, not an employer. She contends she worked for the hospital’s nonprofit, not the hospital itself. But even if she did, her attorney has insisted, what she did could not be considered lobbying because the definition under state law in that scenario only covers agency regulations.
Rainey’s complaint was initially a lawsuit, which a circuit court judge dismissed in March, calling it a non-judicial matter. Rainey, who has been represented by Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, has appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.
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