Sheheen hacking advertisement draws scrutiny


COLUMBIA - A statewide television advertisement from the Democrat in the race for governor is drawing criticism from an outside fact-checker for its perceived failure to tell the whole story about the hacking of South Carolina's Department of Revenue.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, has often criticized Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for her handling of the breach of state computers that exposed millions of South Carolinians' taxpayer information in October 2012. He hit on that theme again in an ad launched Aug. 21.

"When it comes to protecting us we just can't trust Nikki Haley," the ad says. The advertisement, called "Protect," is on TV as part of a six-figure advertising buy across the state., a non-partisan arm of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said the ad "hides" a key detail: that law enforcement asked Haley not to make the incident public until an investigation could meet key benchmarks.

"Ultimately, whether Haley should have disregarded law enforcement's request is a matter of opinion," according to the piece. "But that request is a critical piece of information for voters to know when weighing Haley's decision to delay going public with the security breach."

Mark Keel, chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, said in an interview that both he and the U.S. Secret Service asked Haley to delay any announcement. The Secret Service has declined to comment on the case and the investigation continues.

Keel said that the delay has been a key to protecting taxpayers' information. "If the same thing happened today, if we had a similar circumstance, God forbid, we would follow the same protocol," Keel said in a telephone interview. "I would hope that no matter who was in the governor's office that if law enforcement had gone to them . I would hope they would do the same thing."

Democrats said that law enforcement always err on the side of secrecy, and that in this case the governor should have instead chosen to keep the public informed.

"I think hacking and her gross mismanagement and refusal to be honest with the people of South Carolina cuts to the quick of her administration," said Andrew Whalen, Sheheen's campaign manager. Haley's campaign sees Sheheen's criticism as an opportunity to hit back. "Even a politically desperate trial lawyer like Vince Sheheen should know better than to obstruct a criminal investigation," said campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey in a statement after the ad aired. Telling the public would "compromise the effort to arrest the criminal hacker."

Last week former U.S. attorney and attorney general Henry McMaster, a candidate for lieutenant governor, also came to the governor's defense. McMaster is a well-known Haley ally. Jon Ozmint, a former prosecutor and Department of Corrections head, also defended the governor in a press release sent out by Haley's campaign.

"Politically, it would have been easier for the governor to ignore law enforcement, but instead she worked with the US Secret Service and the chief of SLED and did what was best for the people of South Carolina," McMaster said in a statement.

Of course, many political ads leave out context to make an argument. Haley's recent welfare to work TV advertisement came under fire after The Post and Courier reported on issues with the program. While welfare to work has moved around 20,000 people off state welfare rolls into jobs, those numbers distort the real picture of poverty in the Palmetto State because, critics say, many of the jobs are limited-hour, minimum wage employment that don't move people out of poverty. The Haley administration has defended the program by saying it gives welfare recipients the opportunity for change through the dignity of work.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.