Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration was caught off-guard by the explosive reaction to its decision to replace Darla Moore on the University of South Carolina’s Board of Trustees with a campaign contributor, according to documents obtained by The State newspaper.
The decision had been made quietly, but when word got out, it sparked a “crush of calls” from reporters, and, ultimately, a student-led protest at the State House by USC students who were angry that the largest benefactor in school history had been sent packing.
“I have a crush of calls within the last 30 minutes regarding whether Darla Moore has been pulled from the USC board,” Haley’s press secretary, Rob Godfrey, wrote to Haley and other staff members on March 15. “Do we want to do anything besides confirm this? Thank her for her service? Let me know.”
Emails and related letters, obtained by The State through a request for public records from the governor’s office, show only a few weeks after Haley took office in mid-January, she was considering replacing Moore with Lexington attorney and campaign contributor Tommy Cofield.
But when the decision was made and it became public, Haley’s staff searched for days for an explanation they could sell.
It was the governor’s prerogative, they argued. Cofield shared the governor’s vision. No one actually was removed from the board. And, finally, Moore got the boot because she couldn’t be bothered to return the governor’s call and set up a meeting to discuss the board position in a timely manner.
“This whole thing has a real amateur feel about it,” said J. David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University. “It seems to be a bumbled thing from the very beginning.”
The two-inch-thick stack of documents shows that, rather than leave the explanation to her staff, Haley personally wrote some responses and edited others, including one where she directed her staff to refer to state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, as “arrogant.”
The documents show the governor’s office also tried, without success, to get a reporter to alter her description of Cofield and to get journalists at The State and The Associated Press to report anonymously that Moore was replaced because the wealthy financier was unresponsive to the governor’s efforts to speak with her by telephone or meet with her.
The documents, however, offer no support for that assertion, which Haley herself ultimately got into print through a columnist for The Washington Post.
Rather than confirm that Haley tried unsuccessfully to meet with Moore, the documents lay out a timeline that indicates Cofield had been her choice weeks before she wrote Moore a letter telling her that her successor had been chosen.
That letter, dated March 3 and included in the documents provided to The State, marked an unceremonious and stunning end to Moore’s 12-year tenure on the board.
It simply stated: “On behalf of the people of South Carolina, I want to thank you for your service as a member of the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees. However, today I am appointing your successor. This new appointment will be effectively immediately. My very best, Nikki R. Haley.”
Woodard said he is shocked Haley dismissed a donor who had pledged to give $80 million to the state’s public universities so cavalierly.
“That’s just terrible,” Woodard said. “It’s dumbfounding. What this looks like is they’re not ready for prime time.”
*‘Fine with me, clean broom’
The Moore decision was one of the first from the new governor to generate an intense public backlash.
The documents offer an inside look at how the governor’s office handled what became the hottest of political hot potatoes.
They also underscore the tense relationship Haley’s administration has with some journalists who cover it, and they show how the governor’s office tested a couple of different messages on why Moore was removed – one of which was to blame the media for “erroneously” reporting that Moore had been replaced.
Instead, Trey Walker, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, suggested saying there was a vacancy on the board — Moore’s position — that Haley merely filled it, as was her “prerogative.” Walker tested that response on a handful of Republican lawmakers, who responded positively. “Fine with me, clean broom,’ said one.
New S.C. governors do have the authority to appoint new members to USC’s board. But the notion that Moore’s spot on the board was vacant was contradicted by the March 15 email from the governor’s spokesman, Godfrey, saying, “Darla Moore has been pulled from the USC board.”
Moore had been quietly replaced by Cofield, who had given $4,500 to Haley’s campaign.
When an AP reporter described Cofield as a political contributor early in her story, Godfrey asked her to alter that description to have him described first as “a Lexington businessman and attorney and not simply a campaign donor.” The AP reporter declined Godfrey’s request.
Press secretaries often try to shape media coverage, including suggesting to reporters the most accurate way to describe an administration’s actions or appointees. It’s part of the job. But the documents show that Godfrey’s style is often combative or dismissive.
He told a television reporter who had asked about the Moore decision that it “sounds like you’ve already written your story long before you talk to anyone in our office, which is a real disappointment.”
*‘Something has come up’
As the furor over the decision persisted, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker reported Haley said Moore was replaced because she did not return the governor’s telephone calls or agree to meet with her in a timely manner.
It was a characterization that would have cast the governor’s decision in a new light. If the super-rich Moore couldn’t be bothered to discuss the board position with the state’s chief executive, why should she retain that position?
But the Haley administration offered no evidence — in the released emails and letters — of any communication with Moore before March 9, after Cofield had been promised the job and Haley had written Moore, a letter the Lake City native apparently had not received yet.
On March 9, a Moore assistant emailed a Haley assistant to set up a meeting between the two women. The meeting was set for March 18. On March 14, however, the Moore assistant emailed the Haley assistant, telling her that “something has come up and we new (sic) need to cancel this meeting.”
On March 24, Haley emailed Godfrey, who had been trying to get journalists to report that Moore was unresponsive to the governor’s effort to meet with her.
“I said we had a meeting scheduled and she cancelled,” Haley wrote. “We called and she didn’t return the call. Yes we sent a letter but obey (sic) after she said it would be three weeks before (sic) we could meet.”
The documents do not show any attempt by the governor’s office to contact Moore prior to Haley’s letter on March 3. They do show that, in February, Cofield was emailing the governor’s office, getting instructions on how to fill out the paperwork required of the USC position.
On Feb. 7, a Haley assistant wrote to Cofield: “It was good talking with you. Attached is the form for the USC Board of Trustees appointment. It’s pretty straightforward, but please let me know if you need anything or have any questions! GO GAMECOCKS!”
Later, Cofield wrote Haley saying, “It is a double honor to be appointed by the best governor in the United States of America,” and asked for a meeting with Haley to ensure their agendas were “aligned with what she wants.”
*‘We have long ago moved on’
Others, too, were cozying up to the new governor.
In an email, Haley wrote that the governor’s other appointee on the USC board, Mark Buyck, had “met with me multiple times to let me know that he would be accessible and would communicate and report back.”
Lexington Chronicle publisher Jerry Bellune, meanwhile, emailed Haley to rip The State’s coverage. In another email, however, he said Haley needed to answer some questions — asked by The State — including why Moore was removed, and not Buyck; if Moore’s removal was “the wisest or most diplomatic way to ‘fire’ someone who has given so much to” USC; what Haley did for Lexington Medical Center to justify her former $110,000-a-year salary; and why she forced a severance settlement from the hospital when she was running for governor and could not be reached by hospital officials.
Haley emailed staffers she would call Bellune.
Attempts to reach Moore were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Godfrey refused to answer specific questions about when the governor tried to call Moore and when Moore told her that she would not be able to meet for three weeks.
“The appointment was handled the same we handled each board appointment, by finding the best person for the position who shares the governor’s vision,” he said. “We have long ago moved on from this story.”
That response is standard-operating procedure for the Haley administration as well.
In an email exchange, Godfrey objected to a reporter for The (Charleston) Post and Courier reporting on the controversy over Haley’s Lexington Medical job application, which listed her income in her previous job as $100,000 higher than it was, according to her tax records. “Hadn’t y’all written about this .. already?” Godfrey wrote, questioning “the relevance.”
Transparency was a big part of Haley’s pitch as she campaigned for governor, as was the Tea Party mantra of holding elected officials accountable for their words and actions.
In fulfilling The State’s Freedom of Information Act request, however, the Haley administration said future requests won’t be fulfilled without cost to those asking questions.
“Please note that due to the high volume of Freedom of Information Act requests received by the Governor’s Office and the significant costs associated with producing requests, our office will charge a reasonable cost of copying records as allowed pursuant to Section 30-4-30(b) for any future requests,” Haley’s chief legal counsel, Swati S. Patel, wrote in a letter that accompanied the documents requested by The State.