South Carolina’s wildlife department chairwoman should be booted from office and investigated for making false statements under oath to a Senate committee last month, according to legislation drafted by irate lawmakers.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he will introduce a resolution today to censure and seek the ouster of Caroline Rhodes as chairwoman of the Department of Natural Resources board. The unusual resolution, obtained Monday by The State, asks Gov. Nikki Haley to fire Rhodes and for state Attorney General Alan Wilson to “determine if prosecution is warranted.’’
The resolution, supported by state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, says Rhodes gave false testimony to a Senate committee Feb. 1 about her involvement in the hotly disputed dredging project along the South Carolina-Georgia border. It says Rhodes should be rebuked for providing false testimony, misconduct in office and abuses of power.
Rhodes’ attorney, Bobby Pearce of Charleston, said the Natural Resources chairwoman has been honest in her dealings with lawmakers and is a victim of State House politics. Rhodes has no intention of resigning, Pearce said.
“Everything she has said has been truthful,’’ said Pearce, who accompanied Rhodes to the Feb. 1 hearing. “Her focus has been and will continue to be on protecting and preserving the natural resources of South Carolina for the benefit of its citizens.”
A response from Haley’s office was not immediately available Monday.
Concerns about Rhodes’ testimony are part of a larger debate about the Savannah port dredging. Legislators of both parties have expressed anger over the project, voting unanimously in the state Senate and 111-1 in the S.C. House to scuttle state approval of dredging the Savannah River to allow the Georgia port of Savannah to expand. Haley, who chose Rhodes to lead the DNR board, supports the Georgia dredging.
The Senate is not expected to vote on the Hutto measure this week. It likely will refer the resolution to the same Senate committee that Rhodes spoke before on Feb. 1, said committee chairman Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry. That committee then would take further testimony from Rhodes before voting on whether to recommend Hutto’s resolution to the full Senate, Cromer said.
Rarely has the Senate voted to censure a public officeholder, said Cromer and longtime committee member John Land, D-Clarendon. Land said he remembers only one other such measure in his Senate career, which spans three decades.
“We are wading in new waters,’’ Cromer said. “We don’t want to infringe on any rights or bring any charges when they should not be levied. But on the other hand, we need to get to the bottom of this.’’
The dispute centers on Rhodes’ Feb. 1 testimony to the Senate Fish, Game and Forestry Committee, which was trying to determine why Natural Resources director John Frampton had been forced to resign by that agency’s recently seated board.
During the hearing, senators of both parties also grilled Rhodes on her agency’s involvement in the Savannah port issue. She told senators she had asked one Natural Resources representative not to speak at meetings of the Savannah River Maritime Commission because of legal questions. That commission is fighting the Savannah port dredging in court.
But Rhodes also said, under oath, that she did not issue orders to Frampton to keep staff members from talking about the Savannah port project.
“Did you tell director Frampton to tell DNR staff not to talk about the port issue?” state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, asked Rhodes.
“No,” she responded.
A Dec. 7, 2011, email indicates otherwise, according to Hutto’s resolution.
The email, from Frampton to another Natural Resources official, said Rhodes had mandated that agency staff members not attend the Dec. 9, 2011, Maritime Commission meeting.
“As per a request from our board chair (Rhodes) please do not have any of our staff attend the Savannah Maritime Commission meeting on Friday, December 9th ..., ” Frampton emailed a Natural Resources staffer.
Pearce said Rhodes has been confused about the role Natural Resources should play in supporting the Maritime Commission.
The resolution says Rhodes’ mandate that staff not attend the Maritime Commission meeting ignored the law requiring staff members to help that commission, amounting to an abuse of power. It says providing false testimony constitutes official misconduct in office.
“We are calling this to everybody’s attention,’’ Hutto said. “She did two things wrong: she provided inaccurate information, and she instructed staff not to go to the meeting when the (law) clearly mandates that they do.’’
Lourie criticized both Rhodes and Haley, whose involvement in the port issue eventually led to state approval of dredging permits. Natural Resources has opposed the Savannah port project, saying it would hurt the environment. Lourie said Haley must have influenced Rhodes to back the project. Rhodes’ lawyer denied that.
“The more we find out, the more it clearly appears the governor and her cronies manipulated the process,’’ Lourie said. “As a legislator and a citizen, I am very troubled by that.’’
The Savannah port dredging has been a white-hot issue in South Carolina since the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control changed its mind and approved a water-quality permit for the project in November. The agency’s staff had opposed the project until Haley met with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
After her meeting, Haley called the DHEC board chairman and asked for a hearing on the matter. DHEC staff members then compromised with Georgia ports officials, and the DHEC board signed off on permits for the Savannah project.
DHEC’s action prompted a torrent of criticism from backers of the port of Charleston, which is competing with Savannah to handle bigger ships, and from environmentalists, upset about the ecological effect of deepening Savannah’s harbor.
Unlike DHEC, Natural Resources staff said the project would hurt water quality and threaten fish and wildlife.