COLUMBIA — Under oath and by force of a subpoena, Gov. Nikki Haley's top staff members reaffirmed to a Senate panel Thursday that neither the governor, nor her office put pressure on Haley's political appointees to give Georgia a port permit.
“There was no quid pro quo,” Ted Pitts, Haley's deputy chief of staff, told the Senate Medical Affairs Committee during a hearing over whether the governor put pressure on the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to approve a water permit for Georgia. The permit allows for Savannah port dredging that will create competition for the Charleston port when the widened Panama Canal allows for larger ships in 2014.
The Medical Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over DHEC matters.
Pitts said he was in the room for two key conversations in question and Haley, a first-term Republican, did not strike any deals. Haley met with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, also a first-term Republican, on Oct. 4 in her Statehouse office when Deal asked Haley that DHEC hear Georgia's case for the permit one more time. DHEC staff had denied the permit in late September.
Haley said she would grant Deal that courtesy, Pitts said. Haley called Allen Amsler, the DHEC chairman, into her office and asked him to grant the hearing. Haley appoints the board.
Pitts said neither Haley, nor Deal mentioned actually granting the permit. The issue of the governor's involvement is separate from people disagreeing with DHEC's Nov. 10 decision to grant the permit.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said Haley “lit the fire” when she asked for the hearing.
“She intervened. She didn't have to do it,” Lourie said. “You served. You know what it means to pick up the phone and call an agency. ... And we're just legislators.”
Pitts is a former Republican lawmaker from Lexington.
Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, earlier in a series of questions to Tim Pearson, Haley's chief of staff, said it is normal for a governor or her staff to communicate with appointees on the state's many boards.
“It happens all the time,” Pearson said.
Thomas asked about the indications that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would allow Georgia to dredge even without South Carolina's permit. Pearson said that that was his understanding.
Pearson, known to be Haley's most trusted ally, said he did not influence or interfere with the DHEC decision.
Pearson also testified that an Oct. 28 fundraiser that Haley held in Atlanta had nothing to do with the port decision, an allegation that Haley also denied. She raised $15,000 at the event.
Lourie, however, said the timing of the fundraiser is suspect. He also said that the fundraiser did have connections to the port, because the law firm where it was held handles port issues, in addition to other connections.
“It had nothing to do with the port,” Pearson said.
To which Lourie replied, “I have a hard time with that statement.”
The Senate panel concluded its work. They voted 7-3 to write a letter that says the committee found that the governor did not have undo influence over the DHEC decision. Two senators abstained from voting.
At a news conference after the Senate meeting, Haley called out the Senate for playing political games.
"Enough is enough," she said. Those games are slowing South Carolina down when it comes to progress, the governor said.
She also took issue with Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Winnsboro, for a letter he wrote about an alleged conversation with a Haley staffer in a bar that was intended to incriminate the staffer on the ports issue.
"If you're messing with them, you're messing with me," Haley said.
Although Haley did not call him by name, she said he is known as the legislator of Five Points, a bar district in Columbia.
Brown took issue with Haley's comments.
"Tell the Governor that I'm the representative from Fairfield County. She's probably never heard of it because it’s not in Georgia," Brown said. "If she had grown up in the community I grew up in, she wouldn’t have been taught to lie as much as she has since taking office. I'll live with whatever she calls me, because in the end, it's still better than being known as a sellout."
She pinned the Senate inquiry on Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden. Sheheen lost the 2010 gubernatorial election to Haley. He asked the Senate to investigate allegations surrounding Haley's involvement in the DHEC decision.
Sheheen responded to Haley's criticism with a statement: “We are not in high school and we should expect better from our leaders. 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.”
Haley also took issue with some senators who said they want more oversight on DHEC. She said they have had oversight of the Charleston port and for 10 years did nothing.
She did not take questions from the press.
Haley said she is proud of South Carolina and said the senators could have better spent their time on discussing how to bring jobs to the state.
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