COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley, her time in South Carolina's highest elected office ebbing by the day, honored 42 of her staff members with the prestigious Order of the Palmetto award earlier this month.
The governor also has presented the award to at least 20 state agency directors, many of whom were her own appointees.
Included in this group are Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, Public Safety Director Leroy Smith and Col. Kevin Shwedo, director of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Aside from her trusted staff members and high-ranking state officials, Haley presented the awards to an assortment of figures during her six-year tenure, from former University of South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier to the Rev. Norvel Goff, the minister who took over pastoral duties following the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church.
Other recipients under Haley include jazz musician Thales Pearson, USC women's basketball coach Dawn Staley and Jim Elliott, founder of the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw.
Many of the Order of the Palmetto recipients also contributed to Haley's political campaigns in 2010 and 2014, state Ethics Commission records show.
The award, according to the state, is billed as "the state’s highest civilian honor awarded to citizens of South Carolina for extraordinary lifetime service and achievements of national or statewide significance. The Order of the Palmetto is a once in a lifetime achievement."
Haley's press office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, instead referring to her State of the State address in which she noted the impact and sacrifices of her staff.
In recent years and across various administrations, how the awards have been dispersed has drawn fire for the large numbers of recipients who their varied levels of achievement. The Order of the Palmetto was first awarded in 1971 by former Gov. John C. West, who ended up presenting at least 194 of the awards during his time in office, state Department of Archives and History records show.
Former Gov. James Edwards, in office from 1975 to 1979, presented 246 of the awards. Former Gov. Richard Riley, who was in office from 1979 to 1987, awarded 656. His successor, Carroll A. Campbell Jr., in office from 1987 to 1995, gave out 898, the highest confirmed total for any governor, according to state records. From 1995 to 1999, former Gov. David M. Beasley awarded 736 Order of the Palmetto honors.
In 1999, former Gov. James Hodges set up a "bipartisan screening committee" to oversee the Order of the Palmetto honors. State records reveal that Hodges grew "concerned about the large number of these awards" that had been handed out by his three predecessors. During his administration, he still managed to present 367 awards to South Carolina civilians, records show.
Records available for Haley's predecessor, Mark Sanford, are incomplete, but he awarded at least 323 of the honors through "the midpoint" of his administration, state records show.
Haley has handed out 227 since she took office, nearly 20 percent of those coming on Jan. 11. when she presented 42 of them to staff members.
Haley was criticized in 2013 by state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, who had lobbied for school administrator Mary Schweers to receive an Order of the Palmetto following a potentially violent incident at a private school in Charleston. A mentally disturbed woman had come to Ashley Hall School where Schweers was working carrying a loaded .22-caliber gun. Schweers intervened and no children were harmed.
At the time, Stavrinakis campaigned for Schweers to be given the award, claiming she had very likely saved lives that day. Haley, who has total control over the award, instead gave Schweers a certificate of appreciation.
Stavrinakis said Friday he still believes under the standards, Schweers should have been give an Order of the Palmetto.
"I certainly doubt that there's anything in many of the awards that she presented prior to leaving that will change my feeling about that," he added. "I think probably, if you measure the achievement levels, my guess would be that if I looked at them all (the Jan. 11 recipients), it wouldn't change my mind. If that's the standard, then Ms. Schweers needs to have an Order of the Palmetto, and hopefully one day she'll get it."