At the first Republican presidential debate last month, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley hauled out a practiced line she’s frequently invoked on the campaign trail and in media appearances: “It’s time for an accountant in the White House.”
But if that’s true, should that accountant be Haley?
Haley—who holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting and has cited her bookkeeping experience at her family’s South Carolina dress store as political bona fides for more than a decade—has never held a certified public accountant license. And her own financial record is spotted, with her family business racking up multiple liens while she ran the books, additional thousands of dollars in penalties for her personal taxes, and self-enrichment during her time in office.
And Haley, of all people, would be keenly aware of the ghosts she was summoning. Throughout her 2010 gubernatorial campaign and the ensuing years in office, her financial history and dealings were constantly targeted in the South Carolina press, as a drumroll of exposés revealed everything from the liens to income discrepancies and tens of thousands of dollars in a side hustle exploiting her government connections.
And that microscope has followed her after the Trump administration, as the finances have gotten larger, more complex, and far more curious. Haley and her husband began to ring up millions of dollars in recent years—some of it in the form of royalties from an illegally run, scandal-drenched tribal casino project that Haley had opposed when she was governor, and where questions still swirl.
And while Haley’s life has taken her further and further away from the young woman who balanced the ledgers in her parents’ dress shop—at one point to a Manhattan penthouse—she now finds herself repeatedly reminding a national audience of her past workaday life, at the risk of exposing new voters to old warts.
“So you tell me, who are the big spenders?” Haley said at the debate last month, railing against what she sees as excessive government spending during both the Biden and Trump administrations. “I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.”
In July, Haley’s official YouTube page posted a clip of her making the same point to Fox News host Neil Cavuto, titling the video “Haley: Put an accountant in the White House.” She also dropped the line in her CNN town hall event the month before, telling voters, “I’m not a lawyer, I’m an accountant, and I think it’s time we had an accountant in the White House”—a comparison she made when her campaign first launched earlier this year, and throughout her 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
But in 2010, the Associated Press reported that Haley’s family business—Exotica International, Inc., where Haley handled the accounting and served as chief financial officer, had been hit with three liens over the prior seven years for not paying taxes to the state of South Carolina. A fourth lien was filed “in error,” with AP noting that state officials were unable to explain the phrase.
The taxes were at least 19 months overdue in all three instances, AP reported. Two liens were for not paying taxes on business income, and the third was for failing to send the state the tax money that the company had withheld from employee paychecks. Exotica International paid about $4,000 in total to satisfy the liens, including financial penalties.
In 2009, Haley humble-bragged about the amount of work she put into her accounting job while simultaneously serving as state representative (having run on property tax reform).
“The good thing about accounting, payroll, and taxes is that you don’t have to work during normal business hours,” Haley told South Carolina outlet Who’s On The Move at the time. “When the legislature is in session, you may see me there early in the morning or late at night, but the work always gets done.”
However, AP noted that Exotica International “frequently pays operating bills more than a month late, compared with an industry average of 10 days late.”
The South Carolina Department of Revenue website doesn’t host public lien information older than six years. (Exotica International appears to have received another lien in 2012, while Haley was governor, for failure to pay $692.38 in withholding taxes. That document is still hosted on South Carolina outlet FITSNews.)
But Haley also ran into trouble with her personal income.
She also neglected to file her personal taxes on time, racking up more than $4,000 in penalties for missing multiple annual deadlines in the mid-2000s, Columbia outlet The State reported in 2010.
While it’s true that millions of Americans receive filing extensions each year, those Americans don’t necessarily flaunt their bookkeeping experience as a qualification for elected office.
But while holding office Haley was accused of withholding financial information from voters. Between 2007 and 2009, while serving as a state representative, Haley earned $42,500 from a company with one of the state government’s largest engineering contractors, which, as an advocate of greater public transparency, drew accusations of hypocrisy.
Multiple outlets quoted executives with the firm claiming they hadn’t hired Haley for her business talents, but for the network she’d built up in the legislature.
She was “a connected person who had access to a lot of folks and information” one executive told CNN in 2010.
The Nation later reported a near-identical comment on the record from Robert Ferrell, the man who hired her.
“She is a well-connected person who knows different things and different people, and that’s why we hired her, and I’m going to leave it at that,” Ferrell told that publication in 2011. Neither Haley nor the company would reveal what she did on the job.
Earlier that year, The State discovered a $100,000 discrepancy between Haley’s federally reported income in 2008 ($22,000) and the earnings listed on a hospital job application ($125,000) that same year. Haley landed the gig, a fundraising position that the hospital had created for her, starting at a $110,000 salary.
At the time, Haley’s staff protested that she hadn’t filled out the application and didn’t know why it had turned up in The State’s public records request. But a hospital spokesperson pushed back forcefully, saying the application couldn’t have been altered and that a third party would have had to know personal details—including her social security number, work history, and previous supervisors—to fill out the form.
While a full accounting of that incident may never emerge, Haley did disclose tax returns revealing that her household income had tripled during her five years in the state legislature.
In 2004, Haley and her husband, Michael Haley, earned a combined $65,704; by 2009, they were pulling in $196,282, most of it from Haley’s above-mentioned hospital fundraising salary.
Asked for comment, Haley press secretary Ken Farnaso dismissed this report as covering old and previously resolved matters. He asked The Daily Beast to “use this quote in full.”
“These are old claims answered long ago and re-upped by liberal hacks because Nikki is surging. Democrats know Nikki Haley is Biden’s biggest threat, and they’re terrified,” the statement said.
However, it bears mentioning that it isn’t this publication or perceived political opponents who are doing the “re-upping” here. Instead, it’s Haley herself—a Tea Party budget hawk—who has touted her accounting experience and financial acumen as not just a valuable credential for the presidency, but a uniquely distinguishing and necessary one.
The Daily Beast followed up with Farnaso by pointing out that one of the stated issues—the casino royalty income—is neither old nor fully answered. He did not avail himself of an offer to comment further.
In the years since Haley left the governor’s mansion, her finances appear to have hummed along, but seemingly roared to life after she handed then President Donald Trump her surprising resignation letter in 2018. A Forbes profile last month reported that Haley had cashed in like so many former senior officials, publishing books and commanding top-dollar speaking fees. Over that time, Haley has assembled an $8 million net worth, which according to Forbes was quite a leap from her estimated $1 million net worth in 2018.
Last month, The Daily Beast reported that Haley’s husband, Michael, a consultant and entrepreneur in the defense sector, has ties to a shadowy federal contractor.
But Forbes also puts a wrinkle in that 2018 number. In 2017 and 2018, when Haley’s parents were hard up for cash and facing foreclosure in South Carolina, she and her husband threw in all they could to help bail them out.
At the time, Forbes reported, her parents’ checks bore an address at a $9.5 million Manhattan penthouse not far from the U.N. building. In 2019, after Haley’s resignation, the U.S. government bought the penthouse for $19 million, according to Forbes. (FITSNews, long openly critical of Haley, reported that legal correspondence was addressed to her father at the penthouse in early 2019.)
But Haley’s post-administration windfall has one curious coda that ties back to Trump.
That would be the gambling royalties her husband scored from his consulting contract with a controversial Catawba Nation tribal casino straddling the two Carolinas. When she was governor, Haley opposed the casino, as did a number of other politicians. But the group’s financiers—with a little bipartisan wheel-greasing from fast-talking megadonor Wallace Cheves—finagled special permitting from the Trump administration in 2020 that allowed the complicated arrangement to go forward.
Then, in July 2022, The Wall Street Journal reported that a company owned by Michael Haley provided security consulting for the reservation and casino project in 2018, noting that Nikki Haley was U.N. ambassador at the time. A representative for Haley’s company told WSJ that in return for the work, the company was paid with a stake in the casino. (The report noted that the casino gave similar stakes to Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), as well as Butch Bowers, a lawyer who has counted both Nikki Haley and Trump as clients.)
But the decade of work that went into grinding out that deal collapsed almost immediately. The Catawba Nation dissolved the casino this year after federal investigators found that the operation had violated provisions in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act designed to ensure that the tribe—not a private company—would be the primary beneficiary.
Haley’s office told WSJ in a statement that Haley “did not advocate for the casino project to the Trump administration,” but would not comment further.
The statement also said that Haley—who once fought the casino as governor—had attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony as a guest of her husband.
She “declined to be part of any programming involved with the event,” the statement noted.