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Health care exchange panel says Haley emails didn't matter, published 12/15/2011• SC Gov. Haley dictated health panel finding, published 12/14/2011• Request brought irrelevant material, published 12/14/2011

COLUMBIA -- Gov. Nikki Haley drew criticism Thursday from an influential member of her own party and former ally, who came down on the governor's policy of deleting certain email exchanges with staff members.

Ashley Landess, a conservative political operative, pointed out that Haley promised voters her administration would "fight for accountability and transparency."

"When you run on a platform of fully open, transparent government, you better be the most open elected official at the table every time without exception," said Landess, an architect of Haley's most notable victory while in the Legislature, roll-call voting.

Haley's policy of deleting certain emails became an issue when controversial messages from March surfaced Friday. They revealed Haley's influence over an independent, taxpayer-funded committee she established to determine how health care reform should be implemented in South Carolina.

The state's Department of Health and Human Services provided the emails to The Post and Courier last week. Haley's office failed to include them in its response to a separate, nearly identical request in May.

Asked why the emails were not included, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said Thursday the governor's office was

"in full compliance with the law" and "any suggestion otherwise is totally inaccurate."

He continued: "What I'm saying is that the email had not been retained."

Haley's office has a policy of deleting internal emails, archiving only public correspondence, The State newspaper reported in November. Staffers told The State that Haley almost never uses email to conduct state business, instead relying on phone calls and in-person meetings.

But the governor's office appears to have applied its own policy inconsistently.

In its response to the newspaper's public records request, Haley's office included some internal emails written in the same time frame as the emails it failed to provide.

The March emails in question show Haley dictated findings of the Health Planning Committee before the panel met for the first time, The Post and Courier reported Wednesday. The panel's November findings mirrored Haley's directive that "the whole point of this commission should be to figure out how to opt out and how to avoid a federal takeover, NOT create a state exchange."

A central part of the federal health overhaul, an exchange is a marketplace where various insurance plans eventually will be sold.

Godfrey said this week that an appearance Thursday at the state Budget and Control Board was the only window Haley had to address the records and health committee criticisms. She routinely makes herself available for media inquiries after such meetings.

But after the session, Haley refused to take questions from the media.

Questioned by a Post and Courier reporter who was among members of the media at the meeting, Haley refused to speak or make eye contact. A group of aides surrounded her, keeping reporters out of the way.

"We have to move along today," a staffer said.

When told the public appearance was the one time the governor's own spokesman, Godfrey, said she would be available, a staffer said, "You'll have to talk to Rob about that."

The governor, surrounded by her aides, waited for an elevator in silence as a reporter asked about the missing emails.

In an email later in the day, Godfrey said, "Unfortunately, the governor had to get back to the office for a meeting."

Bill Rogers, president of the South Carolina Press Association, likened Haley to "a deer in headlights."

"She backed out of her responsibility to answer the questions," Rogers said. "A press release doesn't cut it."

Landess added, "I can tell you it doesn't make a lot of sense to ignore reasonable questions from media or public."

"They all have this attitude they are entitled to conduct certain business behind closed doors," Landess said, referring to the governor's office and other elected officials in the state. "Is there anything that goes on that the public shouldn't have access to? The answer is: Very little."

Two state legislators have filed separate bills that would require emails sent and received by public officials to be preserved.

The bill, filed by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, would require emails to be retained for 10 years, with a fine of up to $2,500 for officials found in violation.

The one filed by Rep. Mia Butler Garrick, D-Columbia, would require officials to keep emails from both their public and private computers for a minimum of five years after leaving office.