COLUMBIA, SC — State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the Democratic challenger for governor, Thursday called for a special committee to investigate allegations that Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and her staff tried to interfere with a Senate probe into deaths of children with ties to the S.C. Department of Social Services.
Sheheen’s request came after state Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who sits on a three-member panel investigating Social Services, told The (Columbia) Free Times that she met with two Haley staffers who said Shealy’s questioning of the cabinet agency’s response to the child deaths “looked embarrassing.”
“It has become increasingly clear that Gov. Haley and her administration ... used the power of the Governor’s office to try to cover-up the problem through pressure and intimidation,” Sheheen, D-Kershaw, wrote in a letter to Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland. “It is time to find out just how deep this deception and abuse of power goes.”
Haley’s office said neither she nor anyone on her staff tried to intimidate panel members.
“This is ridiculous election-year politics, and Vincent Sheheen should be ashamed of the way he is manipulating the deaths of children for his own benefit,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said.
Haley and Sheheen are headed for a rematch in November of their 2010 race, which Haley won by 4.5 percentage points.
Sheheen’s letter comes after two weeks of television advertisements by the Republican Governors Association attacking his criminal defense work. Democrats have said the ads were an attempt to create a distraction from the months long Senate hearings into Social Services and Haley’s chosen director of that agency, Lillian Koller.
Thus far, Sheheen’s campaign to unseat Haley has centered on missteps by the Lexington Republican’s administration during her first term, including the massive data breach at the S.C. Department of Revenue.
“Nothing’s really stuck,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. “He’s making sure this one doesn’t get swept under the rug.”
The intensity of the fighting, six months before voters vote for governor, is fueled by the having the General Assembly in session, which gives both sides plenty of fodder to fuss over, Huffmon said. However, the intensity of the political volleys should cool off when lawmakers leave Columbia next month.
“Still, they will be pumping millions of gallons of water into the ground so they can have a mud-sling fest in the late summer and early fall,” Huffmon said.
The source of Sheheen’s complaint, Lexington Republican Shealy, said Thursday that she sees no need for a panel to investigate the actions by Haley and her aides.
“I wish Sen. Sheheen would stay out of it,” Shealy said. “This is supposed to be about the children. He’s making it political.”
Courson said he would discuss what to do with Sheheen’s request with state Sen. Tom Young, the Aiken Republican who chairs the special Senate panel looking into Social Services, and state Sen. William O’Dell, the Abbeville Republican who heads the committee that will receive the panel’s report.
Young said he does not see a need for the special committee to investigate Haley. He said he has spoken with officials from the Governor’s Office about the Senate’s Social Services panel but no one has tried to interfere with the investigation.
“If we’re going to step on toes, we will step on toes,” he said. “We have a job to do.”
Young said he plans to hold hearings into Social Services into the summer. A hearing later this month could feature a second round of testimony from Koller – whom Sheheen, Shealy and state Sen. Joel Lourie, a Richland Democrat who sits on the panel, have called on Haley to fire.
Young said he is holding judgment until the hearings end.
“If the director resigned tomorrow, our committee is not done,” he said. “This is not about Lillian Koller. It’s about the children of South Carolina.”
Haley has backed Koller, citing a shrinking number of deaths among children involved with the agency as part of the progress made at Social Services. However, critics have questioned the accuracy of the administration’s data on deaths.
The Social Services panel convened this year after a series of high-profile deaths of children who had involvement with the state’s child-welfare agency, which reports directly to Haley. Current and former agency employees have testified since January along with coroners and officials with social services groups.
Shealy told reporters after a January hearing that she could not get help from Social Services while trying to aid a grandmother who thought the agency wrongly took custody of her 5-year-old granddaughter.
Soon after, Shealy said she met with a pair of officials from Haley’s office, chief of staff Ted Pitts and legislative director Katherine Veldran. The two did not ask her to stop doing anything, Shealy said, but they told her what was happening at the hearings “didn’t look good.”
Shealy said she was aware that her comments about problems at Social Services would garner more attention because she is friends with the governor, also from Lexington County. Shealy was elected to the state Senate in 2012 with the help of a pro-Haley political group.
“Me saying things didn’t look good,” Shealy said. “For me, this is not about politics.”
Shealy said she has not spoken to Haley directly about Social Services. The pair have not spoken at all since getting into a Facebook spat two weeks ago about Koller.
“That’s scrolled off my page,” Shealy said. “I consider (Haley) my friend. This is not something that should come between friends. We have a lot of issues to work on and need to move on.”