- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The State Ethics Commission has dismissed conflict-of-interest allegations against the chairman of the South Carolina agency that invests public workers’ pension money.

The ethics panel found no evidence that Chairman Reynolds Williams used his position to influence the Retirement System Investment Commission’s decision to invest in a company Williams‘ law firm represents. The ethics decision notes Williams left the November 2011 meeting early, before his fellow commissioners voted, and put a recusal statement in the minutes.

However, the ethics panel said Williams allowed the appearance of impropriety by attending a meeting and receiving progress emails. Its dismissal order cautions Williams to avoid any such appearance in the future.

“The issue was, there was never any direct instruction or anything from Mr. Williams saying, ‘Do this.’ He was just being kept in the loop,” ethics executive director Herb Hayden told The Associated Press on Tuesday. However, he added, “From the very beginning, he should’ve recused himself. He should’ve backed away and said, ‘My law firm represents them.’”

Williams received, sent or was copied on 19 emails regarding the American Timberlands investment starting in May 2007, when Williams introduced company officials to the investment commission’s former chief executive officer, according to the ethics decision, stamped Feb. 3.

Nothing came of the introduction until the company contacted the commission in 2010 with a proposal. Williams then participated in an April 2011 meeting with staff as they discussed the investment. According to agency employees, Williams made no suggestions or recommendations. But when staff learned the company was represented by Williams‘ law partner, they decided not to present the proposal at commissioners’ next meeting. The proposal remained under consideration by the staff, and the agency’s former CEO added it to the November meeting, according to the ethics decision.

The dismissal ends state investigations into Williams that were launched more than a year and a half ago at the request of Treasurer Curtis Loftis, a fellow investment commissioner, who cited the need to protect the state’s $27 billion portfolio.

Attorney General Alan Wilson dropped his criminal probe last October.

Hayden said his staff worked with the State Law Enforcement Division on the criminal investigation, and once Wilson decided prosecution wasn’t warranted, Wilson asked the ethics agency to review the case for the possibility of administrative ethics violations.

“I’m glad for it to be over and done with,” Williams said. He added, “I never had any doubt whatsoever as to how it would end.”

Loftis, the commission’s only publicly elected member, and Williams have publicly feuded since Loftis took office in 2011. And Loftis has used the case to try to discredit Williams, repeatedly referring to the chairman as under investigation.

Loftis continued his accusations Tuesday.

“This opinion speaks more to the poor ethics laws in our state than to Mr. William’s character,” he said, calling for ethics reform. “Ultimately, these decisions will be decided in the court of public opinion.”

The increasing animosity between Loftis and the rest of the commission led to an unprecedented lawsuit at the state Supreme Court last year, as well as an investigation by state Inspector General Patrick Maley, at Loftis’ request. Maley’s report last July found no criminal conduct or deceptive practices by the commission. But he wrote he’d never seen such a toxic, distrustful relationship between two organizations.

The commission’s chief operating officer, former state Sen. Greg Ryberg, said Tuesday it’s time for such “craziness” to stop.

“This was nothing more than another slanderous witch hunt by Curtis Loftis,” said Ryberg, who has also feuded with Loftis over the years.

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