Gov. Mark Sanford's office and state workplace officials consulted on a plan to minimize publicity surrounding the results of an investigation into Charleston's deadly Sofa Super Store fire, according to documents obtained by The Post and Courier through the Freedom of Information Act.
An Aug. 24 e-mail from an official at the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration details a strategy to downplay the agency's investigative report into the June 18 blaze that killed nine firefighters. OSHA planned to release the report close to the Labor Day holiday weekend to "cut down on calls, questions and additional stories" about the document, the e-mail stated.
OSHA's Communications and Governmental Affairs Director Jim Knight sent the e-mail to agency administrator Dottie Ison to explain the strategy. Knight stated that he had spoken with the governor's office and "here's how they want us to handle the release" of the report:
"No news conference. They want no fanfare," Knight wrote. "They want us to downplay this as much as possible."
Knight explained that the report would be released to the media the following Thursday at 3 p.m. to reduce calls and follow-up coverage on the document. "Next day is Friday, and then we have a three-day holiday weekend to let this die down," he wrote.
The e-mail gives no reason for why the state would want to limit media coverage of its own investigation. State officials on Thursday downplayed the involvement of the governor's office and tried to characterize the issue as a misunderstanding.
Knight said it's not part of OSHA's mission to promote its work. "We don't do fanfare and news releases."
OSHA pulled the plug on its plan the day before the report's scheduled release and didn't issue the document until Sept. 20. The report accused the Charleston Fire Department of willfully ignoring the safety of its firefighters during the sofa store blaze. OSHA slapped the city with a $9,325 fine, one of the largest fines ever imposed on a public agency in South Carolina.
Charleston officials challenged OSHA's findings and won concessions from the state agency in a settlement announced this week. The settlement reduced OSHA's fines by two-thirds to $3,160 and dropped the allegation that the fire department knowingly sent its people into harm's way.
Michael Parrotta, president of the union-affiliated South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association, said the state's willingness to back down on violations and give the city more than a year to make some needed changes shows OSHA wasn't committed to change in Charleston. Knight's e-mail only confirms that, he said.
"It's all politics," he said. "That's not the response we want from an agency that is supposed to be protecting not only firefighters but all the workers in South Carolina."
Joel Sawyer, Sanford's press secretary, said the governor's office never suggested that the report be downplayed or gave OSHA a timetable for its release. Cabinet-level agencies often consult with the governor's office on events of high public interest. In this case, Sawyer said, Knight simply asked him for advice on whether or not to hold a news conference on the document's release.
"Our advice was to handle this report on the violations just as you would handle any other report," Sawyer said. "That was the extent of our conversation."
Knight agreed Thursday with Sawyer's account and said the governor's office provided no instructions on the release of the report. "Those instructions are mine," he said. "Looking back at it, it's not the best characterization of what the governor's office instructed. In my haste, I didn't do a good job of characterizing the conversation."
Knight noted that the e-mail was intended for internal use only and that he would have been more careful in writing it had he known it would become public.
Knight sent Sawyer a follow-up e-mail Aug. 29 informing him that the report would not be released the following day, as planned. No reason was given.
Earlier that same day, The Post and Courier ran a story questioning the Charleston Fire Department's use of 100 percent polyester work uniforms, which have the potential to melt under high heat. The article quoted Knight's contention that the city's uniforms failed to comply with OSHA regulations. That set off a volley of words and letters, with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley disputing Knight's assertion.
Knight said Thursday that the dispute had nothing to do with the report's delay. The hold-up was because OSHA's attorney went on vacation, he said.