UPDATE: Haley’s office said the staffers will testify on Thursday, December 8
A state Senate committee voted Friday to subpoena members of Governor Nikki Haley’s staff over whether or not they tried to influence a decision to grant a water quality permit for dredging the Savannah River.
By a 9-3 vote, the Medical Affairs Committee decided to move forward on the subpoenas against Haley’s chief of staff Tim Pearson, attorney Swati Patel, and liaisons Ted Pitts and Katherine Veldran. Pearson had originally offered to meet with the legislators privately, but declined a request to appear before the committee on Friday.
AUDIO: Full meeting of Medical Affairs Committee (44:31)
All five Democrats and four Republicans present on the committee voted for the subpoenas. Three Republicans opposed it, while five other members were not in attendance for the special Friday meeting. Nine votes (a majority of the entire committee, not just those in attendance) were necessary.
The committee’s staff says the move to subpoena executive branch officials is unprecedented in state history.
“There are times I think where we are vested to get to the bottom of an issue,” said Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Columbia), who moved for the subpoena, “It is my humble opinion that today is one of those days.”
Haley quickly took to Facebook to criticize the committee. “(C)ertain legislators choose to flex their political muscle to now subpoena my staff when senators themselves say it is clear there is no smoking gun,” said a post on her account, “What a complete waste of time and taxpayer dollars. Take note.”
However, her spokesman Rob Godfrey confirmed Friday afternoon that the staffers would testify, “Yes, we will testify. And these senators will confirm, again, what they already know to be true: no one in the governor’s office had anything to do with DHEC’s decision.”
Earlier this week, the committee grilled commissioners and staff of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, who testified under oath that the Governor’s Office had not interfered with the decision to grant the permit. The agency’s staff had opposed the decision until the day before the board met on November 10, when DHEC worked out a compromise agreement with Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Legislators questioned whether the environmental concessions Georgia agreed to were good enough to approve the permit. They also questioned why the compromise was approved so quickly.
While they said they disagreed with the DHEC decision, three Republicans on the committee– Mike Fair (R-Greenville), Wes Hayes (R-Rock Hill), and David Thomas (R-Greenville) — opposed the subpoenas. They said they were concerned about treading into unprecedented waters when there was no evidence of wrongdoing in the Governor’s Office.
“Unless there’s some kind of smoking gun here, I don’t know what we’re looking for,” Hayes said. “I don’t mind doing that if there’s some (reason) worth doing it.”
Sen. Danny Verdin (R-Laurens) responded, “I’m not looking for smoking guns… I want to get the bottom of how we make bad policy in this state so we can change this.”
Sen. John Scott (D-Columbia) agreed. “All we want to do is get some answers. It’s not an indictment against the governor. It’s not an indictment against the staff.”
In the end, the deciding votes were cast by veteran Republicans Harvey Peeler (R-Gaffney) and John Courson (R-Columbia). Peeler said he supported the subpoenas as long as the Governor herself was not forced to testify– which he argued would violate the separation of powers.
Courson originally opposed the vote, but changed his mind partway through the meeting after deciding he agreed more with Peeler. He said he would get behind the subpoena as long as it was only limited to Haley’s staff.