In a tense round of questioning Wednesday morning before a Senate panel, Department of Natural Resources Board Chairwoman Caroline Rhodes flatly denied asking former agency director John Frampton to resign during a private meeting last year. Her contradiction of Frampton’s characterization of the meeting means Rhodes essentially called the popular director a liar.
Frampton, whose 37-year service at DNR has been universally praised, told The State Newspaper Rhodes asked him to resign after falsely telling him she had the entire board’s support. “I did not ask John Frampton to resign, ever,” Rhodes denied on Wednesday, calling Frampton’s statement false. “I’m sorry that he has framed things like this.”
“My statement is accurate,” responded Frampton, who participated in the hearing via conference call. “I don’t want to get into a dispute with the chairwoman on this.”
Senators are trying to determine whether Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointees orchestrated Frampton’s ouster in order to carry out the governor’s “business-friendly” (read: environmentally unfriendly) agenda. During Wednesday’s questioning, Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) asked Rhodes why the board would want to take DNR in a “new direction” by removing the popular director.
“There is no ‘new direction,’ and I don’t know where that came from,” Rhodes responded. In fact, the phrase came from Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey, who said in December the board did want to go in a new direction.
Despite Rhodes’ denial regarding the intent of her meeting with Frampton, she did admit telling the director “it would make good sense” if he left DNR before the legislative session began in January. Though if Rhodes didn’t go into the meeting intending to ask Frampton to leave DNR, it seems odd that she already had a timeline in mind for his departure.
It’s also interesting that Rhodes didn’t deny erroneously telling Frampton the entire board wanted him to quit:
“Any criticism that has been doled out to me as chairman, I have to accept it and it is duly noted,” Rhodes told The State. Asked if she disputed any facts in Cromer’s letter, Rhodes said “it really doesn’t matter.”
“Somewhere along the way, this has become very muddled,” commented Rhodes, who did a fair amount of muddling herself during Wednesday’s testimony.
It remains to be seen whether veteran DNR deputy Alvin Taylor can calm the waters at DNR when he takes over as director on March 17. His appointment has reassured some of the most vocal opponents of Frampton’s ouster, but the evidence of political manipulation of DNR and other state agencies indicates that much of the problem continues to lie with the the transparent leadership style at the top.