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COLUMBIA - Some of the same Georgia political and business heavyweights who stirred a 2011 controversy for S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley plan to host a campaign fundraiser for her again next week.
Republican Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, the state's lieutenant governor and its House speaker plan to host a fundraiser for Haley on Monday in Atlanta, according to an event invitation obtained by The Post and Courier.
Donors are asked to pay $5,000 per couple to "chair," $2,500 per couple to "host" and $1,000 per couple to attend, according to the invitation. The fundraiser is being held at Dewberry Capital, a real-estate development firm.
In 2011, Haley was questioned over whether she and her appointees on the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control board should have helped award a permit to dredge the Savannah port. Savannah has leapfrogged ahead of Charleston to become one of the nation's busiest ports, and some fear that deepening the Savannah River could tip the scales further in Georgia's favor.
Because the states share the Savannah River, decisions regarding the river must be approved by both states.
About two years ago, Haley had raised $15,000 at a Georgia fundraiser 13 days before DHEC approved dredging Savannah's harbor, The Post and Courier reported at the time. That approval came weeks after the agency had initially denied the request over water-quality and environmental issues the dredging would cause.
Haley said at the time that while she asked DHEC to take a second look at the issue, she did not otherwise interfere. A Senate panel later cleared Haley's office of any wrongdoing.
Democrats hope to make the planned fundraiser an election-year issue.
"She sold out the port of Charleston for campaign contributions before," said Kristin Sosanie, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the fundraiser was "questionable."
"Why would a Georgia ports official be interested in funding her campaign unless they thought they were going to get something out of it?" he asked.
Haley campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey disagreed.
"Governor Haley always has and always will put South Carolina's ports first - which is a big part of the reason we are breaking export records every year and positioned to deepen the Port of Charleston in the very near future," Godfrey said in an emailed statement.
"The fact that Governor Haley has strong and respectful working relationships with leaders in our neighboring states is a big plus for South Carolina, and she's happy to have their support."
Bill Stern, chairman of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, defended Haley.
"Beginning the day she took office, I have personally watched Governor Haley fight to strengthen our state's ports system because she understands, as I do, that our ports are vital to our state's economic prosperity," Stern said in a statement. "We couldn't ask for a better advocate and leader for our ports."
Other powerful members of the Georgia political establishment are scheduled to attend, including Jim Walters, the vice-chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority. Eric Tanenblatt, a well-connected lobbyist at an Atlanta law firm, hosted Haley's 2011 fundraiser. He is also one of the hosts on Monday, according to the invitation.
A Deal spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment and Tanenblatt could not immediately be reached.
Dredging the Savannah port has since been stalled. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, who was critical in 2011 over Haley's alleged interference which he said hurt the Charleston port, didn't criticize her Wednesday.
"I do believe that the governor wants South Carolina to be the big winner," he said. "I don't want to question her motives for having a fundraiser with Georgia ... officials."
Still, the stakes remain high, as both states are under court-ordered mediation in regard to dredging at the Savannah port. The deal in place currently favors South Carolina, Grooms said.
Both ports, Grooms said, are in a battle for supremacy with each other and others up and down the East Coast as changes at the Panama Canal shape the entire industry. In Panama, changes are under way for supersize container ships to be able to use that port - which means U.S. ports that can accept those ships will receive an economic boon. Plans for a shared port between Georgia and South Carolina have stalled.
"There will be one major port in the South Atlantic market," Grooms said. "It's either going to be Charleston or Savannah. It's not going to be both. Charleston is better positioned to be the winner and we don't want to do anything to jeopardize that."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 843-708-5837.
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