COLUMBIA — Democrats declared open season Tuesday on a Republican lawmaker who’s been the driving force behind a series of inspections and investigations involving Planned Parenthood that uncovered no criminal activity.
Rep. John Smith, D-Columbia, called Rep. Donna Hicks’ claims that Planned Parenthood and two other women’s health clinics that perform abortions had engaged in illegal activity irresponsible. Hicks, R-Boiling Springs, made the accusations after the release of videos ostensibly showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing selling fetal tissue for research.
“Words matter,” Smith said. “Members of the General Assembly, when we say things, it matters. You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.
“All the fear mongering ... has shown to be absolutely devoid of any credit or value whatsoever.”
Hicks did not attend Tuesday’s meeting of the House Legislative Oversight ad-hoc committee, which investigated interactions between state regulatory agencies and South Carolina’s three abortion clinics. Hicks, who had missed at least one other committee meeting because of an illness, said she served as the guest speaker at a Rotary Club event in her district on Tuesday.
“I want to note for the record she has not once appeared ... to give one minute of her time to see the investigation that she called on,” Smith said.
Hicks said she did not need to attend the meetings to find out what was being discussed and could watch them online later.
“I did my part,” she said. “I presented for over two hours and persuaded the committee to create that ad-hoc committee.”
On Monday, Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, called on Gov. Nikki Haley to tone down the “hateful” rhetoric surrounding Planned Parenthood since the release of the videos recorded secretly by an anti-abortion rights group, and asked her to increase security at the state’s women’s health clinics in Columbia, West Ashley, peninsular Charleston and Greenville.
Haley said Tuesday that she had been in contact with the State Law Enforcement Division and was assured there are no known threats to any of the clinics.
“I work very closely not only with Chief [Mark] Keel at SLED but with all of our law enforcement partners. I am aware of all of the threats that are in South Carolina right now and continue to work with them closely on how we protect people in South Carolina,” she said. “That’s something we always do, so there’s no need to suddenly do it now. We’ve been doing that for five years.”
McLeod on Tuesday asked the committee to participate in a moment of silence for the three people who died in a shooting Friday at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado.
“We have to acknowledge what is also happening nationally because of the rhetoric,” she said.
Robert Lewis Dear Jr., a Charleston native with a history of run-ins with the law in South Carolina, is accused in the killings.
Rep. Walton McLeod, D-Little Mountain, said he has found the three meetings held since Hicks and other Republican lawmakers called on the Legislative Oversight Committee to investigate have been a waste of time and taxpayer money.
“This is worthy of our time and our investigation,” Hicks said. “OK. So, this round they found nothing. OK. That doesn’t mean that time was wasted. The taxpayers have a right to know. They have now researched and are presenting their findings to the public. That’s not a waste of time.”
Lawmakers lodging complaints do not have to be sworn in to do so, something Walton McLeod said needed to change.
“If somebody wants to make a complaint, we need to swear them in,” he said. “Failing that, we, as a committee, are going to be eternally frustrated because of the remarkable loss of time it has consumed by unmerited claims.”
Smith said he found the lack of evidence provided before launching the investigation troubling.
“It seems some time ago, during the McCarthy era, we learned the lessons about investigating for the sake of investigating and pursing allegations because there are allegations,” he said.
Not all committee members found the hearings to be fruitless. Committee Chairman Gary Clary said the investigation could lead the Department of Health and Environmental Control to change what it charges for inspections.
An abortion clinic pays a routine inspection fee ranging from $375 to $400. It costs about $2,225 to conduct the inspection.
“After doing this review, we will be looking at requesting a revision of the abortion clinic regulations to include increased fees that are a closer representation to what the cost is,” said Shelly Kelly, director of health regulation with DHEC.
Inspections by DHEC requested by Haley after the videos were released found several violations at the clinics, including improper disposal of fetuses. The clinics were fined several thousand dollars and threatened with being shut down unless they submitted a compliance plan within 30 days. All complied and DHEC lifted their license suspensions.
Staff for the ad-hoc committee will compile a summary of the investigation’s findings, at which point state agency representatives can submit a response. The committee will meet again next month before presenting any recommendations to the full Legislative Oversight Committee.
Gavin Jackson contributed to this report. Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.