A majority of the state Department of Natural Resources board secretly conspired to get rid of agency director John Frampton before its chairwoman asked him to quit, two DNR board members alleged during an emotionally charged meeting Thursday.

Frampton, who announced in October he was retiring early next year, confirmed that board chairwoman Caroline Rhodes asked him to leave the department after eight years as director and 37 years with the department.

“She said that the board was asking for my resignation,” Frampton said when asked by another board member during open session of the board meeting.

The circumstances surrounding Frampton’s departure – which Rhodes disputed – have been the source of rumors for weeks. But nothing surfaced publicly until Thursday, when board members John Evans and Norman Pulliam blasted the rest of the board for discussing Frampton’s departure secretly and without their knowledge.

“This was done in the cloak of darkness, without any light whatsoever,” Pulliam said. “We have just shipwrecked the career of a distinguished public servant.”

The DNR, among other things, regulates hunting and fishing, oversees thousands of acres of state-owned land and patrols lakes for boating violations. The governor has the authority to choose board members who can hire or fire a director.

Speculation has centered on whether Gov. Nikki Haley had a role in Frampton’s decision to leave because she appointed a majority of new board members after taking office in January. The director of South Carolina’s other major environmental agency, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, resigned two months earlier, after a new Haley-picked board took control of that agency.

Haley’s office has said she had nothing to do with the retirement of either Frampton or DHEC chief Earl Hunter, but a spokesman said Thursday the governor knew the board wanted the director to leave.

“The governor was aware that members of the board were ready for the agency to go in a different direction,” spokesman Rob Godfrey said. “When it comes to searching for a new DNR director, the governor trusts the board to find someone who understands the need to protect our state’s rich natural resources but also the need to cut regulations on our businesses and sportsmen.”

Board members who supported Frampton’s departure did not say why they wanted him to leave, but Pulliam said he was told Frampton’s heavy travel schedule was part of the reason. While Haley’s appointees on the board said they did not hold a secret meeting to oust Frampton, they indicated they had made telephone calls to discuss his future.

Pulliam said he and Evans were “blindsided” upon learning in late October that Frampton had been asked to leave. He was informed by a fellow board member who had participated in the discussions, Pulliam said.

“Mike (Hutchins, another board member) said it didn’t matter: the board had the votes,” Pulliam said. “Mike said that John was being asked to resign because the agency needed a new direction, a change. And that he was out of town too often.

“I was shocked. I was stunned.”

Rhodes, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Sanford and elevated to the chair position this year by Haley, said she merely asked Frampton to retire three months earlier than he had planned so the agency could have someone new in charge during the coming Legislative session that starts in January.

Rhodes suggested that the private discussions with other board members were held because she was trying to avoid an ugly public vote.

“I did not want something like this to happen,” she said, referring to Thursday’s public discussion of Frampton’s departure.

Frampton, named director in 2003, is widely credited by conservationists and sportsmen for bringing federal and private dollars to South Carolina for land preservation. Much of that has resulted, his supporters say, from trips to Washington for meetings with potential sources of funding. Before becoming director, Frampton helped engineer major deals with private foundations to help the state purchase the Jocassee Gorges mountain preserve and parts of the ACE Basin in the Lowcountry.

Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, criticized the board for discussing Frampton’s future in secret. She said it’s clear from the board’s actions that Haley wants to take the DNR in a different direction, which is a concern.

Timberlake and Ben Gregg, director of the S.C. Wildlife Federation, praised Frampton’s accomplishments at the DNR. Timberlake said Frampton, for instance, spoke against a polluting coal-fired power plant in the Pee Dee. It was defeated three years ago, despite strong support from the state’s powerful business community.

Democratic state Sens. John Scott and Joel Lourie, both of Columbia, said they were surprised to hear about the circumstances surrounding Frampton’s leaving. Scott said the telephone discussions violated the spirit of the state’s open government laws.

At the meeting Thursday, Evans persuaded the board not to accept Frampton’s resignation letter, which Evans claimed was written under the false pretense that the full board wanted Frampton to resign. After a closed-door meeting, the board agreed without dissent to let Frampton stay on until March 16.

Neither Pulliam nor Evans would answer questions after the meeting.

Board members also named Col. Alvin Taylor, the director of the law enforcement arm of the agency, was named interim agency director until a new chief takes over for Frampton. Rhodes said after the meeting Taylor could be a candidate for the job full-time.