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Democratic party staffer filed Ethics complaint that sparked Haley inquiry

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Governor Nikki Haley Governor Nikki Haley

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) - The State Ethics Commission has opened a public inquiry after receiving a complaint from a Democrat claiming the Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's campaign misreported more than $1.3 million in contributions.

A hearing is scheduled for July 18, officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday. The allegations are detailed in a complaint obtained by The AP and confirmed by Herb Hayden, executive director of the Commission. They mark the panel's second consecutive investigation into a sitting South Carolina governor.

The complaint - initially filed in July by Bridget Tripp, an employee of the state Democratic Party - accuses Haley of misreporting more than $1.3 million in contributions by failing to maintain proper records of donors' occupations and not disclosing contributors' addresses.

Candidates are not required to report their donors' occupations but must be able to furnish a list if requested, Hayden said. Contributors' addresses are needed in case their identities need to be verified.

The Commission has been investigating Tripp's complaint since last summer, Hayden said, working with Haley campaign staff to sort out the missing donor information.

In a March 29 notice, the Commission notified Tripp that it would convene a July hearing over seven allegations concerning the governor. One count addresses the failure to keep records of donors' occupations. Six others deal with individual contributors' addresses; in all, those six donors gave a total of about $4,000 to Haley's campaign, according to online disclosures.

Hayden said Tuesday that campaign staffers have been able to nail down addresses for all but two of the contributors, but hundreds of donors' occupations are still missing.

Tripp asked the Commission to refer the case to Attorney General Alan Wilson, noting that "Commissioners are appointed by the Governor, the subject of this complaint. ... By referring the case to the Attorney General, the Commission can avoid any appearance of bias or impropriety while investigating the office responsible for their appointment."

Hayden said Tuesday he did not think the investigation into Haley's finances would rise to the level of possible criminal prosecution, which would trigger a referral to Wilson's office.

The July 18 hearing will be similar to a trial, at which a panel of three commissioners will hear arguments from both sides and then determine if laws were broken. If so, Haley could face possible fines up to $14,000 - $2,000 for each charge. It will be a closed proceeding unless Haley opts to make it public.

The investigation is the latest in a string of ethics queries surrounding the first-term Republican. Last month, a circuit judge dismissed a lawsuit accusing Haley of breaking ethics laws while she was a legislator, saying such issues should be handled by either state ethics officials or a legislative panel.

Haley has said she would not waive confidentiality to any legislative ethics investigation.

A spokesman for Haley's office referred comment on the ethics commission investigation to campaign attorney Butch Bowers, who couched the complaint as a political stunt by state Democrats.

"These are routine matters that occur with virtually every candidate," Bowers said. "And the only reason a complaint was filed against Gov. Haley was because she won."

State Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian disagreed, saying South Carolina residents will have no faith in the state's laws if their own governor breaks them without consequence.

"Winning doesn't allow you to commit illegal acts to get there. If being the winner does that, then we don't need an ethics (law)," he said. "We have a GOP governor, just like Mark Sanford, who can't abide by the law. When you have the chief executive of the state who can't abide by the law, why should anybody else?"

Haley's predecessor, Republican Mark Sanford, paid $74,000 in ethics fines - the largest in state history - after the commission reviewed his use of state planes, campaign cash and first-class travel after his revelation that he had an affair with a woman in Argentina.

The man who served as Haley's second-in-command also faced an ethics investigation, a probe that ultimately resulted in his retreat from office. The Ethics Commission announced it had begun an investigation into former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard's campaign finances in February 2011, just three months after the Republican was elected. A month later, the Commission levied 106 civil violations against Ard, who agreed to pay $48,400 in fines and reimburse the state more than $24,000. The state grand jury ultimately indicted Ard with seven counts of campaign finance crimes, prompting his resignation and guilty plea, which resulted in a probationary sentence, fines and community service.

South Carolina's governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately and do not run on the same ticket. Glenn McConnell, former President Pro Tem of the state Senate, was sworn in as lieutenant governor last month.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

sidebar: Haley Ethics hearing

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Read the Ethics complaint filed by Bridget TrippRead the notice of hearing sent to Governor Nikki Haley

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