A state House panel looking into the South Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) abruptly ended its meeting Thursday after playing a tape of the agency’s human resources director saying there were times when it was OK for employees to lie — moments after she had told the committee she never said such a thing.
Members of the House oversight panel had begun questioning HR director Tosha Autry under oath about comments she had previously made to her employees. Specifically, State Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, wanted to know whether Autry had ever instructed HR employees to tell “little white lies” when asked potentially sensitive information about agency personnel.
“Have you ever had a meeting in your department where you’ve told the members of your department that they had to be liars to be in HR?” Tallon asked.
“No, I have not,” Autry answered, seemingly surprised by the question.
Listen to exchange (0:42)
“You’ve never said that?” Tallon pressed.
“That they have to be liars to be in HR?” Autry responded. “No.”
“And that they had to tell lies — even little white lies — to be in HR?” Tallon, a former law enforcement agent, probed. “Have you ever said that?”
“No, but I can tell you what I told them,” Autry started, before being interrupted by the panel’s chairman State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia.
Finlay warned the HR director not to “sail into these waters unnoted,” before having a staffer read South Carolina’s laws against perjury or providing false testimony under oath. After a lengthy explanation, the chairman had Tallon ask the question again.
Autry insisted she had not instructed employees to lie, but that “they are bound by confidentiality laws” and that HR employees “may know the answer to a question (about an employee’s termination)… and they may know the answer to the question, but they cannot tell them,” she said. “I think that statement was taken completely out of context… I have never told anybody to lie in HR.”
But Tallon then produced a tape that an employee apparently recorded of Autry’s comments in a meeting. The woman’s voice on the tape can be heard saying, “When you work in HR, you’ll become a liar. I’m telling you that, right now. It’s not a bad liar, but it’s a… you’ll tell little white lies. Because you’ll know what’s going on, but you’ve got to act like you don’t know what’s going on, all right?”
“You’ve got a terminated (employee),” the voice cites as an example. “You knew they got terminated… but you can’t tell (co-workers) that they got terminated. Because… again, you’ll find yourself in a deposition (inaudible).”
Listen to oversight panel’s recording (0:35)
Autry told the panel that the voice on the tape was hers. Finlay told DPS Director Leroy Smith to get to the bottom of the remark before the committee meets again in a few weeks. Finlay strongly implied that Autry may have perjured herself by her testimony.
DPS is a state Cabinet agency whose director is appointed by the governor. Its purview includes the state Highway Patrol, Transport Police, and the Bureau of Protective Services officers who guard the Statehouse.
It’s unclear, beyond the existence of the tape, what had prompted legislators’ concerns on the agency’s HR office. One panel member, who asked not to be named, told South Carolina Radio Network they were concerned Autry had been specifically using the word “lie” to subordinates instead of simply telling her employees not to discuss personnel matters at all.