A state Senate committee vote today said neither Gov. Nikki Haley nor her staff put “undue pressure” on the Department of Health and Environmental Control to sign off on a controversial ports deal with the state of Georgia, but you wouldn’t know it by the some of testimony that unfolded in Thursday’s hearing.
Five members of the governor’s staff testified under subpoena (though Haley made it clear that they did it because they wanted to, not because they had to) about the lead-up to DHEC’s decision to grant Savannah’s port a dredging permit once sought by the Charleston port. Senators speculated Haley may have urged her appointees to the DHEC board to issue the permit in return for a prime speaking spot at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, of which the Georgia Ports Authority’s chairman is an organizer. Haley Chief of Staff Tim Pearson denied any knowledge of conversations involving the RNC.
Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) grilled Pearson on Gov. Haley’s conflicting statements, such as her claim that a Georgia fundraiser on October 28th had nothing to do with the ports — though one of the attendees at her money meeting at a maritime law firm in Georgia was the Georgia Port Authority vice-chair. Pearson said he didn’t know the guest attended, and when asked about why the fundraiser Haley claimed was catered to Motorola and GE happened to include these details, he replied, “You’d have to ask the governor.”
Sens. Hutto and Lourie (D-Richland) told Pearson they found it “highly unusual” that Haley would personally ask the DHEC board to hear Georgia’s case. Without the governor’s request, Lourie said, DHEC would never have granted the permit. Despite Haley’s precedent-setting request, Pearson says he didn’t find the personal appeal for Georgia to get a second chance unusual.
Pearson’s deputy, former lawmaker Ted Pitts, also ignored the red flags senators saw in the governor’s unprecedented call. “You know what it means to pick up phone and call a state agency, and we’re just legislators,” Lourie told Pitts, adding, “I don’t think we can undervalue the impact of [the governor's request.]“
Pitts also acknowledged he met — at the governor’s request — a South Carolina woman who works for the Georgia ports, and who drove to Columbia to make Savannah’s case.
In fact, Haley’s staff reluctantly acknowledged multiple flip-flops today, such as legislative liaison Katherine Veldran’s admission of a conversation with Rep. Boyd Brown (D-Kershaw) after the USC-Florida game. Brown said Veldran let slip details of a possible agreement with Georgia Gov. Nathan “Let’s Make A” Deal, but Haley’s office flat-out denied the conversation even took place until today.
“They said the conversation never even happened, and now they say it did,” Brown told Palmetto Public Record after the hearing. “So who do you think is lying?”
After the hearing, Gov. Haley held a press conference at which she blasted the legislators involved with the proceedings and personally attacked Rep. Brown, calling him “the legislator of Five Points.”
“I’ll live with whatever she calls me, because in the end, it’s still better than being known as a sellout,” Brown responded soon after. “It’s clear that the governor is trying to shift the focus from her lies and bad decisions to my character. I welcome a character debate with someone who sports a background as questionable as her own.”
Refusing to take questions, Haley tried to portray the whole investigation into the ports deal as an evil plot connived by Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw). “We are not in high school, and we should expect better from our leaders,” responded Sheheen. “These are serious issues that deserve serious attention. The governor and her DHEC board just sold out South Carolina’s environment and economy, and we deserve to know why.”
With so many questions unanswered, we can only resort to exercising some sunshine, and hope a governor who bombastically campaigned on transparency will comply. Palmetto Public Record is preparing multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for records pertaining to today’s testimony, so watch for updates as they become available through our Twitter account at @PalmettoRecord.