COLUMBIA -- South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's husband contemplated using taxpayer money to chill wine, some of which was donated by a business that later was given a private reception at the governor's mansion, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
The email exchanges show Haley campaign donors that spent at least $12,043 on her 2010 election were sending first gentleman Michael Haley lists of wine that his company would donate. The wine donations were followed by the reception, where the company's brass rubbed elbows with the governor. Donor Mike Sisk of Ridgeway-based Ben Arnold Co. was appointed in April to the State Ports Authority as a non-voting member, giving him a voice in the state's import and export dealings.
Rob Godfrey, the governor's spokesman, said plans by Michael Haley to create what amounts to a wine cellar were never acted upon.
"First, taxpayer money was not used here," Godfrey said in an email. "The governor's mansion is an old house and sometimes in need of improvements. Like any family, the Haleys talk about potential improvements to the house, but also like any family they often don't go through with improvements when they don't make sense -- as was the case here."
The emails irked conservatives and critics, including Talbert Black, who runs the conservative Palmetto Liberty PAC.
"I don't know many people have a wine cellar in their home. That seems above the normal of what the average person has," said Black, whose political action committee works to defeat Republicans that the group says aren't conservative enough.
Black, who supported Haley's 2010 bid and now thinks she'll lose re-election, said he was glad taxpayer money wasn't used to pay for the wine. However, he said businesses shouldn't be given special treatment.
State Ethics Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden said there doesn't appear to be anything wrong with the donors later having a Governor's Mansion event, "unless you can tie the two together: that one was in return for the other."
State Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said it shows Haley "is out of touch with reality. The idea they'd spend time thinking about a wine cellar demonstrates how totally tone deaf and distracted Nikki Haley and her husband are." He said they should be spending time on critical needs such as failing bridges to faltering schools.
A review of nearly 2,000 pages of email and other documents, which were provided under a Freedom of Information Act request, shows the mansion's wine holdings had been growing for months. Sisk, an executive vice president and chief financial officer of Ben Arnold Co., offered lists of free wine to Michael Haley and the governor's executive chef, Geoffrey Sandifer.
Sisk and the company did not respond to messages about the Haley donations.
The emails and documents were part of the response to inquiries about a sideline catering business Sandifer runs that prompted an internal investigation at the governor's office. Sandifer was ordered to stop sideline catering at the Governor's Mansion complex and told to repay the state for using linens, cookware and a computer. The governor's office also informed the state Ethics Commission about the situation. Officials have not determined how much Sandifer needs to repay.
Sisk was an early supporter of Nikki Haley's campaign, according to her reports to the state Ethics Commission.
He and his wife had donated more than $1,400 in 2009, when Haley was seen as a longshot. In September, he spent $324 on what was listed as food for a reception. In May 2010, as Haley was surging in the polls, he spent $6,286 on campaign signs. Meanwhile, Ben Arnold donated $3,500 to Haley's campaign in September as the general election approached.
Within days of Haley's inauguration in January, Sisk was offering Michael Haley lists of free wine.
On July 15, Sisk offered another round of wine donations to Sandifer. Sandifer replied he would review the list with Michael Haley and get back to Sisk the following week.