COLUMBIA — A Senate panel determined Thursday that Gov. Nikki Haley did not pressure a state environmental agency to approve a dredging permit allowing Georgia to expand the Savannah port, though Democratic senators contend her request to the board chairman swayed the outcome.
The Senate committee voted 7-3 along party lines that Haley did not unduly interfere with the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s decision on a water quality permit for the dredging of the Savannah River. The decision came after four members of Haley’s staff testified under oath.
Senators voted 9-3 last week to subpoena the four after Haley and her staff refused to appear before the committee voluntarily, with five Republicans voting in favor.
It is believed to be the first time legislators have invoked a 25-year-old law to force the governor’s inner circle to testify.
“If the staff had appeared before us when I asked, we wouldn’t even be here today,” Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said after the vote. In light of comments by Haley’s spokesman last week, he added: “Whatever rhetoric we hear after today, don’t say this committee wasted time and money.”
Haley fired back with her own warning. She called a news conference immediately after the hearing, but took no questions.
“If you mess with them, you’re messing with me,” she said, blasting legislators as only “liking decisions when they’re their decisions.
“What we saw happen today was unprecedented and sad,” she added, praising her staff. “You can shoot at me all you want to. I’ll take it every time. They don’t deserve what happened today.”
DHEC staff initially denied the permit Sept. 30. Minutes before the board was set to hear an appeal Nov. 10, staff reached an agreement with Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers, which the board approved unanimously with no debate. Agency leaders and the six board members, all of whom Haley appointed earlier this year, testified last week that Haley did not pressure for approval.
The board did not have to hear the appeal, but Haley asked the chairman to hear Georgia’s case.
Legislators contend the agency’s actions on Georgia’s $650 million dredging project put the Charleston port at a disadvantage and scuttled plans to develop a shared port in poor, rural Jasper County, 14 miles closer to the Atlantic.
Haley argues the Corps was threatening to proceed without the permit, and the agreement provided additional wetland protection and 50 years of guaranteed funding to maintain a dozen devices that are supposed to pump oxygen in the river – devices that environmentalists question whether they’ll work.
Haley’s deputy chief of staff, former Rep. Ted Pitts, said he sat in on Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s meeting Oct. 4 with Haley. Deal flew to Columbia to meet with Haley for about an hour.
But Pitts said the meeting was simply a neighborly discussion between two first-year Republican governors and the dredging permit happened to come up
toward the end.
Deal asked that Georgia’s case be heard.
“Gov. Haley said absolutely, that seems like a reasonable request, and a courtesy that she would expect to be afforded to her in a similar situation,” her chief of staff, Tim Pearson, told senators.