COLUMBIA — A high-ranking ethics attorney for the Navy, a retired SLED investigator and one of the lead prosecutors of the infamous Operation Lost Trust sting from the early 1990s are among Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s eight nominations to the State Ethics Commission.
Haley’s appointments, if confirmed, would bring stability to the Ethics Commission, where four of the nine seats are vacant and the terms of the other five commissioners all have expired.
Her appointments also come in an election year while the state Senate is debating a bill that could overhaul the commission, empowering it to confidentially investigate complaints filed against House and Senate members and, in some cases, force lawmakers to hold public hearings on those allegations.
Haley’s nominees include James Burns, the former deputy counsel to the Navy’s No. 2 admiral on ethics issues; Sherry Lydon, a former federal prosecutor who worked on Operation Lost Trust, the early 1990s FBI investigation into vote-selling by state lawmakers; and Clisby “Sandy” Templeton, a retired SLED agent. A spokesman confirmed Haley also plans to nominate Charleston attorney Frank Grimball to the commission in the coming weeks.
“Governor Haley’s appointees to the Ethics Commission are respected members of South Carolina’s legal and law enforcement communities, and the governor is confident each of these appointees will serve our state with distinction,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said.
Haley made most of her appointments last week. The House approved them and sent them to the Senate, which has referred them to its Judiciary Committee for further screening.
“If (the House) approved them, I can’t imagine there would be any issue with the Senate,’’ said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens. “It’s just a matter of formality.”
Democrats and some advocacy groups have criticized Haley for waiting so long – three years into her four-year term – to appoint members to the Ethics Commission.
Commissioner George Manley’s term expired nearly four years ago, and Philip Florence Jr.’s term expired nearly three years ago. Two other commissioners lost their seats because of redistricting in 2012, and three other commissioners’ terms expired in June.
Two commissioners – James Warren and Twana N. Burris-Alcide of York County – were supposed to take seats on the commission last year, but a paperwork error prevented them from taking office until the Legislature reconvened in January.
The more Haley waited, the more difficult her situation became. The commission spent most of 2012 and 2013 investigating allegations that Haley did not follow the law in reporting her campaign contributions during her 2010 campaign for governor. The commission eventually fined her $3,500 for not reporting the addresses of eight contributors. If Haley had replaced the entire commission during its investigation, it would have caused a political firestorm.
As a result, the commission has been left with only five acting commissioners – the exact number needed to have a quorum.
“There ought to be something to prevent this from happening, something like a drop-dead date. If no one has been appointed, it would revert to the attorney general or someone else to do it,” said Lynn Teague, legislative director for the S.C. chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Of Haley’s eight appointments, only one has contributed to her campaign.
Burns, a partner with the Nelson Mullins law firm, donated $75 to Haley in 2010.
Burns –a former deputy legal counsel who advised the Navy’s No. 2 admiral on ethics issues – also was the staff attorney for the committee that Haley appointed to investigate ethics reforms. He helped write the committee’s report, which formed the basis for several parts of the ethics reform bill now pending in the state Senate.
“For me, this is a matter of serving the state of South Carolina,” Burns said of his nomination.