COLUMBIA - State Sen. Vincent Sheheen called Thursday for an investigation into whether Gov. Nikki Haley or her staff attempted to obstruct a Senate panel's investigation into the Department of Social Services. Haley's spokesman calls the request by her Democratic rival election-year nonsense.
Sheheen asked Senate President Pro Tem John Courson in a letter Thursday to create an investigative committee to look into whether the administration interfered with another panel that's been holding hearings on DSS since January.
He pointed to comments by a Republican on the bipartisan panel, Sen. Katrina Shealy, who said Haley's staff scolded her for appearing to be against the governor.
"It is time to find out just how deep this deception and abuse of power goes," Sheheen wrote.
Shealy is among those calling for DSS Director Lillian Koller's removal. Others include Sen. Joel Lourie, a Democrat on the panel; Sheheen; and gubernatorial candidate Tom Ervin, who said he jumped into the race specifically because of the DSS issue. Koller has refused to resign, and Haley continues to back her Cabinet director.
The Free Times of Columbia quoted Shealy earlier this week saying Haley's staff fussed at her, and it felt as if they were trying to see if they could intimidate her into calling off the hearings.
But she told The Associated Press on Thursday that, while Haley's staff came to her, she didn't feel they were trying to influence her.
"I don't influence easily," said Shealy, R-Lexington. "They said it looked like I was taking sides or that I was making it look bad. That's not the case. It's not that kind of issue. This is solely about children. It's not about the governor. It's not about anything else."
Asked whether the governor's staff tried to intimidate or influence anyone regarding the hearings, Haley's spokesman said "of course not."
"This is ridiculous election-year politics and Vincent Sheheen should be ashamed of the way he is manipulating the deaths of children for his own benefit," Doug Mayer said. He accused Sheheen of using the deaths of innocent children as political props.
Both Shealy and the chairman of the panel holding the DSS hearing, GOP Sen. Tom Young, oppose Sheheen's request for a separate investigative panel.
"I think he needs to stay out of it. He's making it political," Shealy said. "I just want the problems corrected so children aren't abused and don't die. This is not a witch hunt. This is not political. This is about children. We're getting way off base here."
Critics said DSS is focusing too much on numbers at the expense of children.
Sheheen's letter comes two days after he held a news conference to again call on Haley to fire Koller, citing last week's death of a 5-month-old baby who the agency was notified about last month. Agency officials said workers tried repeatedly to find the family but couldn't because they kept moving. But Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott disputed that Wednesday, saying social workers waited weeks before contacting the medical worker who had reported her concerns and remained in contact with the mother.
Courson said he's considering Sheheen's request but needs to talk to Young and another committee chairman.
Young, R-Aiken, called it unnecessary.
"We are continuing to press forward," he said. "If we step on toes, so be it."
He expects Koller to testify a second time later this month. Koller, who suffered a stroke in December, declined multiple requests to testify last month. The agency said the doctor had not cleared her yet.
Young has not called for Koller's ouster. He said he wants to hear all the testimony before he makes up his mind.
"It's important I do that and try to be prudent before I jump to judgment," he said.