COLUMBIA — State Sen. Vincent Sheheen – an attorney and the likely Democratic nominee for governor – has at least eight pending cases before magistrates that he recommended for appointment, court records show.
Sheheen frequently has assailed Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for ethical missteps. But Haley’s campaign countered Friday that Sheheen’s courtroom appearances before the magistrates are “scandalous.”
Earlier this year, Sheheen voted for an amendment that would have banned lawyer-legislators from appearing before magistrates who the lawmakers recommended for appointment. Sheheen also has introduced legislation that would require state Supreme Court justices to recommend magistrates, instead of senators.
However, the Haley campaign accused Sheheen Friday of being a hypocrite. Earlier this week, Sheheen sent a letter to the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee saying “those who call for reform in public while continuing to abuse ethics standards display the height of hypocrisy.”
“He is getting paid to use his influence over magistrates that he selects in order to get drug users and violent criminals off the hook,” Haley campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said. “It’s scandalous, and it’s a crystal-clear reason why we need ethics reforms so badly.”
The eight pending cases are three counts of speeding, one count of driving with a suspended license, one count of marijuana possession, one count of trespassing, and two counts of assault and battery in the third degree.
In South Carolina, the governor appoints the state’s more than 300 magistrates – county-level judges who preside over cases that carry penalties of up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine not exceeding $500. Traditionally, the governor appoints nominees recommended by the local state senator or senators.
Andrew Whalen, Sheheen’s campaign manager, said all of Sheheen’s pending cases before the magistrates are jury trials, meaning the magistrate would not decide the case’s fate.
“He’s an attorney in a rural county (Kershaw), and we’re talking about speeding tickets here,” Whalen said. “I’m not saying it’s a pass. ... But he’s worked to change the law to have these magistrates appointed by the Supreme Court. He is leading that effort.”
John Freeman, a distinguished professor emeritus at the USC School of Law who has taught legal ethics for more than 30 years, said it is not unethical for Sheheen – or any legislator – to appear before magistrates who they have recommended for appointment.
Freeman defended having state lawmakers elect judges as a good practice, saying lawyer-legislators are “people who actually know these judges, have appeared before these judges ... and know their behavior, ethics, work practices and so forth.”
“To say that (what Sheheen is doing) is automatically unethical is, I think, defamatory and false,” said Freeman, who – campaign records show – donated $1,250 to Sheheen’s campaign for governor in May.
Ethics is developing as a major issue in the 2014 governor’s race, with both the Haley and Sheheen camps citing the other as an example of why reform is needed.
Sheheen’s campaign repeatedly has criticized Haley for having to pay an ethics fine for not reporting the addresses of eight contributors to her 2010 campaign. It also has questioned Haley’s use of state-owned vehicles on campaign trips with campaign staff and her failure to disclose more than $40,000 that she was paid as a consultant for a Columbia engineering firm while Haley was a member of the S.C. House.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, has asked Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson – who last year prosecuted Republican Lt. Gov. Ken Ard for ethics violations – to weigh in on whether Haley’s use of state-owned vehicles on a campaign trip was legal.
The State Ethics Commission has said Haley’s campaign trips did not violate the law, and the House Ethics Commission cleared Haley of any wrongdoing for not reporting the consulting income. The state Supreme Court also dismissed a lawsuit, alleging ethical illegalities by Haley.
Adding to the debate is H.3945, an ethics reform bill that will be first on the state Senate’s calendar when lawmakers return in January. Haley has been traveling the state this week to promote the bill, which contains several amendments that Sheheen sponsored, including one making lawmakers wait eight years after they leave office before returning to lobby the Legislature.
Whalen said it was a “false equivalency” to compare Sheheen’s courtroom appearances with some of Haley’s actions.
“There is a difference between hiding income, like Nikki Haley did when she was a legislator to the tune of $40,000, and his work as a lawyer,” Whalen said.