Scrutiny growing on Haley port role

Governor Nikki Haley

Renee Ittner-McManus

COLUMBIA -- Gov. Nikki Haley faces increasing questions over her role in a decision that helped Savannah gain a competitive advantage over the Port of Charleston, the state's main economic engine.

New concerns arose over two recent events: Haley's refusal to attend a Senate hearing next week on the matter, and revelations that she raised $15,000 at a Georgia fundraiser 13 days before the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control approved dredging Savannah's harbor. That Nov. 10 approval came about six weeks after the agency denied the request over water-quality issues the dredging would cause.

Haley dismissed allegations that she influenced DHEC's decision that helped clear the way to dredge Savannah's port. Haley has called a Monday press conference to discuss the situation.

Democratic Rep. Leon Stavrinakis of Charleston said the timing of the fundraiser and the DHEC decision make him suspicious.

"It is another reason why the governor needs to come clean about why this decision happened and how it happened," he said. "The sooner the better."

Haley's spokesman Rob Godfrey accused Stavrinakis of playing politics and meddling in DHEC business.

"The charge state Representative Stavrinakis makes is ludicrous and politically motivated," Godfrey said. "Strengthening our ports, which Governor Haley has made one of her top priorities, should be something that everyone works together to do rather than play politics."

Behind the fundraiser

Eric Tanenblatt, who hosted Haley's fundraiser, is a well-connected government expert at an Atlanta law firm. He served as chief of staff to former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, Georgia's first Republican governor in 130 years. Tanenblatt is part of the finance leadership of the Republican Governors Association and has been named among Georgia's most influential people.

His law firm, McKenna Long and Aldridge, conducts international business with 475 attorneys and offers public policy advisers in corporate, environmental, finance and government fields, among other areas. It also focuses on infrastructure, such as seaports, harbors and terminals.

Tanenblatt said the fundraiser was held during lunch at his law office and was not associated with port business. He declined to say who attended but described the group as 20 to 25 Haley supporters, mostly Atlanta-area business leaders.

"Governor Haley just happens to be one of the sitting governors right now that I think very highly of," Tanenblatt said.

Haley's campaign aide Marisa Crawford declined to provide a list of the luncheon attendees or names of contributors. They will appear on Haley's next campaign disclosure report, which is due Jan. 10.

Crawford said guests were charged $1,000 per person or company to attend. Haley raised $15,000. Crawford said planning for the fundraiser started nearly four months before the DHEC decision.

Edward Queen, a faculty member with Emory Center for Ethics, said the system for political fundraising presents opportunities for suspicions to arise in people's minds about whether a politician is unduly influenced.

Queen did not know specifics about the Haley accusations but said, "It gives an appearance of impropriety from which people will draw all manner of conclusions... That is a major problem for hindering people's trust and the well-functioning of their government."

Critics also point to Haley's close association with DHEC board members, two of whom have let the governor use their private plane at least five times. Four of the six Haley appointees have donated a combined total of $10,700 to her campaign.

Dredging and football

Meanwhile, Republican activists who oppose Haley announced Wednesday they will run a television ad Saturday during the University of South Carolina-Clemson football game. The ad, which will continue into next week, accuses Haley of making a backroom deal that led to the environmental permit for Savannah's port expansion.

Socially conservative GOP leader Cyndi Mosteller of Charleston helped found the group Conservatives for Truth In Politics. It formed last year to try to derail Haley's election.

Godfrey, Haley's spokesman, dismissed the ad, saying, "This group's history, affiliations and motivations speak for themselves."

Haley's critics pointed to evidence that she changed her position from opposing the dredging to supporting it. Last November, Haley said at the State of the Port address, "You now have a governor who does not like to lose. Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don't have the patience to let it happen anymore."

Dredging Savannah's port will allow it to handle the much larger cargo ships expected to call on the East Coast in 2014, after the Panama Canal is widened. That could give Savannah a competitive edge over Charleston, which also is seeking to deepen its port. Both dredging projects lack funding and still require approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The governor's role

Haley has said her only role in DHEC's decision was asking the chairman to hear Georgia's appeal after the agency's staff denied the permit. Haley said she was extending a courtesy to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who requested a second look.

What changed, Haley said, was that Georgia had agreed to spend money over the next 50 years to provide some environmental protections to the Savannah River by paying to pump oxygen into the water to make up for any degradation.

Haley also said the Army Corps of Engineers had indicated it would approve the Savannah dredging without South Carolina's approval.

"They were going to do it anyway," Haley said. "We actually came off better, because DHEC got us something out of it."

South Carolina state senators have scheduled a Tuesday committee hearing to review the situation.

The governor and her staff were called to attend and provide documents, but she declined.

Haley said the senators' request infringed on the state's separation of powers. The committee has not decided if it will subpoena the governor. Haley said she would be willing to meet privately with the senators and committee staff.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said Haley could quiet speculation by disclosing who attended the Atlanta fundraiser, who was invited, and whether any donors had a direct interest in Savannah's port.

"It doesn't smell right," he said.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her at twitter.com/yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog at postandcourier.com/blogs.