SC Senate panel votes to subpoena Haley staff

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS/AP) - A state Senate panel said Friday it wants four members of Gov. Nikki Haley's staff to be forced to answer questions about a water quality permit approved to dredge the Savannah River.

A Senate committee looking into the issuing of the permit voted 9-3 to subpoena Haley's chief of staff, her attorney and two legislative liaisons. Committee staff members said they can't recall members of the governor's inner circle ever being forced to testify before lawmakers.

Haley quickly responded with a statement on Facebook. "All DHEC board members and DHEC staff have said under oath that the Governor and the Governor's staff did not in any way influence their decision," wrote Haley. "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. Take note."

The committee wants to ask the staff members about an agreement the Department of Health and Environmental Control reached with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Georgia last month just minutes before the DHEC board was to hear an appeal.

The DHEC staff denied the water quality certification Sept. 30, citing unacceptable harm to fragile marshes and endangered fish.

Some Republicans lawmakers seemed leery that subpoenaing the governor's staff might set a bad precedent by trespassing on the separation between the legislative and executive branches of government. But Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler decided to support the move because the governor herself was not being forced to testify.

The governor's staff has testified before other committees on issues ranging from the budget to voting bills, and this is no different, the Republican from Gaffney said.

Peeler said he has heard voters tell him that their main issues are quality of life and jobs.

"I can't remember an issue that deals with both as strongly as this. This issue trumps everything. It trumps politics," he said.

Haley and her staff refused to appear before the senators earlier this week, saying it was unnecessary. If they continue to refuse to talk to the committee, a court would likely decide whether they are required to speak to lawmakers.

Six members of the DHEC board, along with agency leaders, told senators at the Tuesday meeting that Haley put no pressure on them to water down the environmental requirements or approve the certification. They also said they would still vote the same way.

Senators criticized board members for the lack of debate and for approving a verbal agreement that wasn't put on paper and signed until five days later. Board members could not answer specifics on the agreement, repeatedly deferring questions to staff. Relying on staff is normal, they said.

DHEC's vote gave the go-ahead to the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with plans to deepen about 35 miles of the Savannah River, allowing supersize ships to reach the port in Savannah, Ga., which South Carolina officials consider a competitor to Charleston's port. Environmental groups and coastal Republicans have accused the agency and governor of selling South Carolina's interests down the river.

Copyright 2011 WIS. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.