Friday, March 16, 2012

Could Glenn McConnell become Governor?

If John Rainey gets his way, it will be so: Glenn McConnell -- now less than a week into his service as Lieutenant Governor -- may succeed Nikki Haley before her first term ends in January, 2015.

As widely respected as McConnell is for his whipsmart political mind, today's news from Columbia may show that McConnell is also the cleverest person in the entire legislature.

The news? It comes from Columbia's Free Times, which broke the story last fall of Lt. Governor Ken Ard's ethical challenges.

A judge heard oral arguments on March 12 in a public corruption lawsuit brought on behalf of a prominent GOP fundraiser against Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.

Fifth Circuit Judge Casey Manning has yet to make an official ruling on whether the case will move forward.

If ever answered prayers might prove beneficial to the people of a state, now is the time to pray that Judge Casey Manning grants time and space for justice to blossom in his courtroom. In the spirit of last year's Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans, let's pray for a Carolina Spring.

Reached by phone, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said the governor's office had no immediate comment on the matter.

Of course she hasn't. That doesn't stop the rest of us from considering it aloud, in public places.

Former Board of Economic Advisors chairman John Rainey, who recruited Mark Sanford to run for governor in 2002, filed the lawsuit in November. It asks whether Haley broke any laws as a House member either by lobbying a state agency on behalf of her employer Lexington Medical Center or by doing secret consulting work for Wilbur Smith and failing to properly abstain from legislation benefitting the engineering firm. Both occurred during the time she represented Lexington County as a Republican in the S.C. House prior to becoming governor in 2010.

Regardless of how the judge rules, a complaint could still be filed with the S.C. House Ethics Committee, a six-member panel of House members that regulates the conduct of current and former House members and candidates.

Complaints brought before the committee can end up in front of Republican State Attorney General Alan Wilson. On March 9, Wilson indicted former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, a fellow Republican, on public corruption charges.

“I believe Governor Haley is the most corrupt person to occupy the Governor’s Mansion since Reconstruction,” Rainey has said. “Put it another way: I think she is corrupt to the core of her being.”

To the core of her being.

I don't know for sure about Haley's anatomy, but I believe that when the House proposed improving its appropriation to public schools, she excoriated House members and demanded they use that money instead for corporate tax breaks. If that represents being corrupt to the core of her being, then she's corrupt.

Rainey's lawsuit also alleges that Haley filed false claims on her ethics reports, failed to disclose her association with lobbyists; neglected to disclose conflicts of interests when voting on bills; illegally voted to benefit a business she was associated with; and used her office to solicit money from lobbyists.

Whew. That's a lot of failing and using.

The House Ethics Committee is charged with regulating its own members and former members. The State Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction over current or former state legislators.

Oh, no, no -- this is too big an issue to leave to the House Ethics Committee. That's a recipe for delay, distraction, disappointment and dissatisfaction. A Haley investigation would be buried there, and we'd never hear of it again.

Aiken Republican Rep. Roland Smith chairs the House Ethics Committee. The retired rural mail carrier and minister says he is not aware of any complaint against Haley before his committee.

If his committee received one, Smith says, he would refer it to staff attorney Emma Dean to determine if it’s valid. Dean has been there about a year, he said. She is also assistant counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. If Dean decides the complaint deserves an investigation then she would refer it to the committee for a vote on whether to proceed.

The committee has a staff of two, according to its researcher Adam Anderson. After staffers make recommendations on a complaint, the committee members serve as “the judge and jury,” Smith said.

See? Recipe for disappointment. When was the last time the House Ethics Committee ruled against a sitting governor and called into question the legitimacy of his (or, now, her) claim to the office? I wager it's never happened.

Smith says his committee could be fair and impartial if it had to investigate a sitting governor – and a fellow Republican.

“We would certainly have to entertain that,” he said March 16 about what would happen if he received a complaint about Haley. “We have to be fair … that's our motto: to see that House members are treated fairly as well as people in the public that may be dealing with whatever is being dealt with.”

Smith said if the committee found probable cause in an investigation it would refer the findings to the attorney general.

Five Republicans make up the six-member panel.

We’ve got honest people on the Ethics Committee that really take their job seriously,” Smith said.

We had an honest governor who cheated on his wife and lied to South Carolinians about leaving the country to be with his mistress.

We had an honest state treasurer who was using and dealing cocaine.

We had an honest agriculture commissioner who held illegal cockfights.

We had an honest 66-year-old assistant attorney general who was caught on a Monday at 3:15 in the afternoon sitting in his car with some adult toys, some little blue pills and an 18-year-old stripper in Columbia's Elmwood Cemetery.

We have two honest state representatives serving today, one under indictment for failing to file tax returns, and another arrested for harrassment; and a third state representative suspended from office, under indictment for failing file state tax returns.

Our government is full of honest people. They're so honest, they rarely seem able to find fault in the crimes and ethical lapses of others like them.

Which, luckily, our judicial system is designed and empowered to do for them.

As it related to any complaint against Haley, Smith said in November, “I’m interested if there is substance … If that’s brought before the committee.”

He also said his Ethics Committee doesn’t comment on any investigations -- or about whether it is even conducting them.

Common Cause of South Carolina director John Crangle, whose watchdog group has observed state government for decades, doesn't have much faith in the panel.

“The House Ethics Committee in my opinion is little more than a fraud,” he says.

Little more than a fraud. I don't know John Crangle, but I respect his intelligence and judgment. He seems to know a bit about our state government.

Crangle says the panel has historically accomplished little more than receiving reports filed by House members related to their campaign fundraising and says anything it does is confidential.

Options for sanctions against a House member under the committee could include a private or public reprimand, depending on what the members find.

“Historically I can't recall a single case in which they have publicly disciplined a House member, and that even goes back to Operation Lost Trust where a number of House members were indicted and convicted of bribery,” Crangle says.

Not a single case, he says, in all these years. There's been just too many honest people serving in government, obviously.

Lawmakers are proposing a bill that would abolish the respective House and Senate ethics committees and instead put legislators under the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Committee.

“Right now you have the fox guarding the hen house,” says bill sponsor Rep. Boyd Brown, a Fairfield County Democrat. “It's like delivering lettuce by way of the rabbit. It's anything but ethical.”

Candidly, I don't see this proposal going far. South Carolina doesn't have a good record of abolishing bad ideas.

As for John Rainey and his corruption charges: After what happened this week to our former Lieutenant Governor, momentum would seem to be on the side of investigation and resignation.


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