Last Tuesday, news broke that Republican Gov. Nikki Haley had been a passenger in a minor car accident in North Carolina … two months ago.

On June 27 at about 6:30 p.m., a State Law Enforcement Division employee crashed a state-owned Chevrolet SUV into a concrete post in the road in Guilford County, N.C., at about 10 mph with the governor and two members of her campaign team riding inside. The fender-bender itself was not earth-shattering news. SLED reported that no one was injured, and the repair costs came out to about $4,300.

But as the governor gears up for a 2014 re-election campaign against likely Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen, the previously unreported car accident raised questions about whether Haley uses state-owned vehicles to travel to campaign fundraising events. The vehicle and the driver are provided to the governor through the Executive Protection Unit, which according to SLED spokesman Thom Berry includes “a number of different vehicles from a number of different agencies.” According to a spokesperson from the Department of Public Safety, which owns the SUV, the repair expenses were paid from the state Highway Patrol budget.

The accident took place just outside the Grandover Resort, a conference center and golf resort in Greensboro, N.C. According to an article in the Charlotte Observer, supporters of N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory hosted a $5,000-per-person retreat at Grandover on June 27 and 28, and Gov. Haley was scheduled to appear on the 27th for a reception, dinner, and forum. The article noted that the event was “expected to draw 100 to 150 corporate representatives and wealthy donors.”

Spokespeople from Haley’s campaign team and the governor’s office have not responded to numerous requests from the City Paper to say whether the trip to North Carolina was a campaign trip or a matter of official gubernatorial business. But in an interview with The State, governor’s office spokesperson Doug Mayer offered this explanation: “The governor was not an announced candidate (she announced her re-election bid Monday) nor was this a campaign event. Since there were no additional costs, no reimbursement is required.”

However, the two passengers riding with Haley on June 27 were likely members of the governor’s campaign team. One was political advisor and former Haley chief of staff Tim Pearson, and the other was political fundraiser Marisa Crawford, according to a collision report provided by North Carolina State Highway Patrol.

And while the Grandover event was officially a McCrory fundraiser, it also appears to have paid off for Haley. According to campaign finance filings, Haley raised just under $61,000 for her re-election campaign on June 27 and 28, including $34,500 from North Carolina-based donors, organizations, and companies. Among the high-dollar contributions were $10,500 from the DeJoy family of Greensboro, $3,500 from Reynolds America PAC, and $3,500 from New Breed Logistics of High Point, N.C.

Murky legal territory

The governor has a history of misusing state-owned vehicles. In October 2012, Haley repaid $9,590 to the state Aeronautics Commission after an Associated Press report pointed out that she had violated a budget clause by using state airplanes to attend bill-signings and news conferences. Speaking to the AP, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said the violations were “entirely staff oversight.”

Again in May 2013, state Democrats criticized Haley for using a state-owned plane to transport a private videographer 17 times. They called for Haley to return more than $17,000 in flight expenses to taxpayers, but Godfrey defended the cameraman’s flight as a legitimate expense for the governor’s office.

Broadly speaking, state law gives the following guideline for traveling on the taxpayers’ dime (in Section 19-101-01): “Travel and transportation at State expense will be authorized only when officially justified and by those means which meet State government requirements consistent with good management practices.”

Section 8-13-765 of the state Code of Laws also states, “No person may use government personnel, equipment, materials, or an office building in an election campaign.”

John Crangle, who as the director of Common Cause of South Carolina was the only lobbyist advocating for the 1991 Ethics Act and helped draft the language in that particular section, says it was written so no public resources could help with political campaigns. The language, he said, is general on purpose.

But State Law Enforcement Division spokesman Thom Berry says that his agency, which oversees the Executive Protection Unit, has an overriding responsibility to protect the governor wherever she goes. “The governor is the governor,” Berry says, “so we have to provide security any time she travels, whether it’s in state or out of state.”

Sherri Iacobelli, communications director for the state Department of Public Safety, says she is uncertain what restrictions apply to the governor’s use of vehicles provided to her by DPS. “We do have a policy with regard to how law enforcement uses their vehicles, but not specific to how a vehicle is used,” Iacobelli says. “It’s specific to the law enforcement officer and how they are to use that vehicle.”

Ethical questions

The sudden revelation last week that Haley had used a state-owned vehicle for travel in North Carolina piqued the interest of the State Ethics Commission, the agency that has jurisdiction over statewide officeholders like the governor, but not lawmakers. Deputy director and general counsel of the commission Cathy Hazelwood said last Wednesday that she would be sending Haley a letter addressing the remarks her spokesperson made to the press.

“This is a campaign event in the sense that she received a bunch of campaign money,” Hazelwood said. “So there needs to be proper reimbursement to the state and proper disclosure.” She added that Haley is a candidate according to the state’s definition.

But Hazelwood’s letter never made it to the governor. State Ethics Commission director Herb Hayden, who is not an attorney, reversed course some time after the City Paper published Hazelwood’s intentions to seek reimbursement from Haley. He did so after a conversation with Haley’s private attorney Butch Bowers.

Throwing Hazelwood under the bus, Hayden told The State that his deputy director didn’t know “the whole story.” Hayden said he agreed with Haley’s people that the trip was not campaign-related, even though she traveled with two campaign staffers.

The flip-flop, says Democratic House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia, “smacks of inside politics and is everything that is wrong with the state of government.”

Hayden’s reversal raises questions about the independence of the State Ethics Commission, says Crangle. Hayden’s job is particularly vulnerable to political pressure because the governor-appointed boardmembers decide whether to keep or can the director. The board is stacked with members whose terms have expired but are still serving, and Crangle says she can remove them at will.

“They have no independence whatsoever,” he adds.

As it stands, the only way a determination can be made about whether Haley used state resources improperly during her trip to North Carolina would be if someone filed a formal complaint with the ethics commission.

Chris Kenney, an attorney in the law offices of former Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, handled the last ethics complaint against Haley. A Democratic Party staffer had brought the complaint, accusing Haley of not keeping proper campaign finance records for all of her donors, specifically their addresses. After 14 months, Haley eventually paid a $3,500 fine. Her attorneys waged a protracted battle with the ethics commission that made Kenney wonder if the State Ethics Commission is looking out for the public’s interest. He said it wouldn’t be worth filing a complaint this time.

“That process doesn’t work,” he says. “It’s a dishonest process and the State Ethics Commission works for the offenders.”

Hayden responded by saying, “That’s ridiculous. That’s a political comment.”

Haley has been cleared of accusations of unethical behavior in the past, but the most recent news is likely welcomed by Democrats who could reference it in the upcoming 2014 gubernatorial election.