By GINA SMITH
Gov. Nikki Haley’s staff is refusing to testify today before a Senate panel investigating a controversial decision to expand a Georgia port.
The panel could vote at today’s meeting to subpoena the staffers and force them to testify.
Haley chief of staff Tim Pearson sent a letter late Thursday to the panel’s chairman, state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, repeating Haley’s position that staffers would not testify but are willing to meet one-on-one with lawmakers to provide materials.
“This office did not have any involvement in DHEC’s permitting decision,” Pearson wrote. “Additionally, with great respect for you and your colleagues on the Committee, we believe that our appearance would be unprecedented and inconsistent with our government’s basic separation-of-powers principles.”
The panel is investigating whether Haley and her staff unduly influenced an environmental board’s vote to grant a permit that cleared the way for the expansion of the Savannah port, a competitor to the Charleston port. Some lawmakers including state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said the decision also jeopardizes the yet-to-be-developed S.C. port in Jasper County.
The Haley-appointed board approved the permit despite early opposition from the state’s environmental regulators. That approval has led some lawmakers to speculate Haley and her staff unduly influenced the vote in return for political favors or campaign contributors from Georgia.
Haley has denied the claim.
And six board members of the environmental agency and a parade of agency staffers testified Tuesday that they were not influenced by Haley’s office.
Board chairman Allen Amsler testified Tuesday that Haley asked him to consider an appeal of the decision by state Department of Health and Environmental Control staff to reject the permit. He testified he passed the request along to staff but did not order the permit be granted.
After Georgia and the Army Corp of Engineers officials agreed to a series of environmental concessions, DHEC staffers changed their position and recommended to the agency’s board that the permit be granted.
But some Democratic lawmakers are not satisfied and want Haley staffers to testify under oath.
They point to a supposed conversation between state Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield, and a Haley staffer as evidence the governor’s office may have had undue influence. Brown claims he and a Haley staffer were discussing the DHEC decision Nov.13, and the staffer described it as “the best decision we’ve made since we’ve been in office.”
“They say publicly that their involvement with DHEC was limited but the account from Representative Brown paints a very different picture,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, who sits on the panel.