COLUMBIA -- What do South Carolina senators hope to untangle by taking the historic step of forcing Gov. Nikki Haley's staff to testify under oath?

That is the key question stemming from Friday's 9-3 vote of a Senate panel to subpoena the first-term Republican's top staff members over their potential involvement in a decision to authorize dredging to deepen the Savannah port.

Haley called the conflict between her and the Republican-controlled Legislature a "complete waste of time and taxpayer dollars."

Still, the governor will comply, which avoids what could have been the second constitutional fight between the two branches of government in the 11 months Haley has spent as chief executive.

The senators want the testimony to:

The hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. Dec. 8.

What is at stake?

The vote by the Senate Medical Affairs Committee to subpoena the four staff members came down to Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, a Haley supporter. The committee has jurisdiction over DHEC matters.

"When I go back home and talk to my constituents, they say, 'What are y'all doing in Columbia? What is some of the nonsense y'all take up? Y'all need to concentrate on two things: the economy and the environment; jobs and quality of life,' " Peeler said. "This is it. This issue is it; it's jobs and quality of life of this state."

The governor had a different take.

"All DHEC board members have said under oath that our office did not in any way influence their decision," Haley said in a statement.

"I have issued a statement saying the same, yet certain legislators choose to flex their political muscle to now subpoena my staff when senators themselves say it is clear there is no smoking gun. What a complete waste of time and taxpayer dollars."

Going forward

Godfrey later confirmed that the staff members would testify. They are Tim Pearson, chief of staff; Ted Pitts, deputy chief of staff; Swati Patel, legal counsel; and Veldran.

Haley's staff declined at least three invitations to voluntarily testify, although they offered their cooperation behind the scenes. The governor also was invited to testify, but she declined, citing a separation-of-powers issue.

Haley has said her only involvement was asking the DHEC board chairman to hear Georgia's appeal.

The six DHEC board members, along with six high- ranking staff members, testified Tuesday before the Senate committee in a seven-hour hearing.

The subpoena vote was considered historic. Legislative staff could find no similar action in the past, and it was unclear if the Senate had the constitutional authority to subpoena the governor's top staff members.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said the Senate has a duty to examine the situation. The senators should be able to know if communication from lower-level DHEC staff indicates there was disagreement over the decision to grant the permit.

Others also have questioned a $15,000 fundraiser Haley held in Atlanta 13 days before DHEC's Nov. 10 decision to allow Savannah's port dredging.

Haley has voluntarily disclosed details of the fundraiser, and her critics have yet to point toward any specific wrongdoing.

Voting "yes" to subpoena: Anderson, D-Greenville; Courson, R-Columbia; Lourie; D-Columbia; Nicholson, D-Greenwood; Peeler, R-Gaffney; Pinckney, D-Ridgeland; Scott, D-Columbia; Shoopman, R-Greer; and Verdin, R-Laurens.

Voting "no": Fair, R-Greenville; Hayes, R-Rock Hill; and Thomas, R-Greenville.

Not present: Bryant, R-Anderson; Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet; Hutto, D-Orangeburg; Jackson, D-Hopkins; S. Martin, R-Spartanburg.

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