Governor’s Public Communication: Mostly PR, Little Policy

June 14, 2012

Investigative Reports

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d8fc6c6fc6b475bcdeaed2e1fe77607eWhile Gov. Nikki Haley says she wants her administration to be the most transparent in state history, she has fallen short of that goal more than once when it comes to releasing records of her public communications.

In response to public criticism over deleted emails, Haley’s office in March signed a records-retention agreement with the S.C. Department of Archives and History. Among other things, the agreement requires the retention of correspondence “handled personally by the Governor,” and “may include dictated letters and handwritten messages between the Governor and staff, constituents, government and political colleagues.”

It also includes, under the policy, “electronic mail personally received or sent by the Governor.”

To see what records Haley has been keeping since the retention agreement was signed on March 12, The Nerve submitted a request to her office on March 22 under the S.C. Freedom of Information of Act seeking copies of all public communications, both written and electronic, sent or received by her between March 12 and March 22.

The Governor’s Office moved slowly to release the records. The Nerve on June 4 received 198 pages of records after informing the Governor’s Office that a $30 check paid by The Nerve for the records had cleared on May 9.

What was released didn’t reveal much of anything about Haley’s behind-the-scenes decision making on public policy issues. Of the 198 pages released by her office, 121 pages, or 61 percent, consisted of photocopies of front pages of South Carolina newspaper stories about Haley or other issues of interest to the Governor’s Office; and lists of those stories compiled by a Haley staffer, Jeff Taillon.

What wasn’t released might be even more telling.

In its FOIA request, The Nerve asked for all electronic public communications sent or received by Haley between March 12 and March 22, including faxes, emails, Facebook and Twitter direct messages, and cell phone text messages.

None of that was provided, except for two emails sent to Haley. In a June 5 follow-up letter to The Nerve, Swati Patel, Haley’s chief attorney, gave the following reasons for the absence of those records:

  • Public email accounts: Haley apparently didn’t send any public emails during the time period in question. “Email from public accounts has been provided to you for the dates that you requested,” Patel said.
  • Public business done on private email accounts:  “Governor Haley does not conduct official public business on her personal email account.”
  • Facebook/Twitter direct messages: “All messages on Governor Haley’s Facebook and Twitter accounts are accessible in the public domain. On the Governor’s Facebook page, the private messaging function has not been activated; therefore there is no ability to send and receive private messages. Governor Haley’s Twitter account is not managed directly by the Governor.”
  • Cell phone text messages, both from public phones and private phones if the messages dealt with public matters: “The Governor’s Office telecommunications provider, Verizon, has explained to our office that it cannot store text messages; therefore there is no way for our office to retrieve text messages.”

In an interview last week with The Nerve, Eric Emerson, director of the Department of Archives and History, said his agency doesn’t have any Haley documents covered under the records retention agreement. Under the policy, the governor’s office isn’t required to transfer any documents cover by the agreement until 2014, the final year of Haley’s first term, he said.

As for newer forms of communication, such as Facebook and Twitter messages, Emerson said there is a “big debate right now” among historians and archivists nationwide about whether public agencies can legally require the retention of those records; and if so, how to keep those records.

“Does not Facebook own that, or is that a government document?” Emerson said about Facebook posts. “If she (Haley) is posting things on a private site (such as Facebook), do you print that up or capture it some other way?”

David Cuillier, an associate journalism professor at the University of Arizona and former chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee, said any kind of public communication by government officials, including Facebook and Twitter messages, generally should be open to public review.

“If it’s written by a government official, and it deals with public business, it should be released,” Cuillier told The Nerve last week. “We need to know what the government is up to. They can’t hide in secrecy.”

Haley Gets Personal

The 198 pages of records provided to The Nerve don’t reveal much, if anything, about the inner workings of South Carolina government.

Of the total, 56 pages were mostly congratulatory or thank-you letters from Haley to constituents and students. Most of those letters appeared to be form letters written by Haley’s staff, though Haley’s signature is on all of them, along with a short, handwritten note at the bottom of each letter.

The records also included a dozen short handwritten notes from Haley to various individuals – mostly congratulatory, thank-you or condolence messages. In one note, however, Haley appeared upset with a Lady’s Island resident who criticized her in a letter-to-the-editor published March 5 in the Hilton Head Island Packet newspaper for reportedly skipping a White House dinner for the nation’s governors.

“Come on, governor, you were brought up with better manners than that, and you were elected to do more than that,” Rick Stone concluded in his published letter. “I am pulling for you, but you have to show a little more maturity and smarts.”

In her handwritten note to Stone on March 14, Haley replied: “I was unpleasantly surprised to see a letter to the editor in the paper from you. We are not strangers. You have my number and email. If you had used it, you would have realized I attended five days worth of business meetings with other governors, the President, and the Vice-President. Michael (Haley) attended meetings with the First Lady and Dr. Biden.”

“The only event we didn’t attend was the formal dinner,” Haley continued. “I know how I was raised & am proud. Michael & I were very disappointed to see your criticisms made in such a public way. My very best, Nikki.”

Public Policy Views

The documents provided to The Nerve did include several letters from Haley dealing with public policy issues. Among them was a March 13 letter to President Barack Obama, signed by Haley and six other governors, pushing for offshore energy development.

In another letter on March 12 to Summerville resident Timothy Pardue, Haley thanked him for his letter regarding a sales-tax-collection exemption granted last year to online retailer Amazon for its new distribution facility in Lexington County, and explained her position on the incentive.

Haley let the exemption become law last year without her signing the bill, contending that the previous administration under former Gov. Mark Sanford promised the tax break.

“Though granting a special sales tax exemption to companies is not a policy that will be supported by my administration, I will continue to aggressively recruit jobs to South Carolina,” Haley wrote to Pardue.

“I am on the phone with companies every day that are looking at moving to South Carolina – and our state’s biggest selling point is our competitive business environment,” Haley continued. “If we lose that fair business reputation by picking winners and losers, our state’s ability to recruit future companies will be severely limited.”

Yet Haley more recently might have taken the opposite position on picking winners and losers in the marketplace.

On the Senate floor last week, Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, said Haley likely was involved in a deal to give a huge tax break to the state’s big three tire makers – Bridgestone, Continental and Michelin. The Nerve reported on Monday how lawmakers rushed through the special tax credit on Thursday, the last day of the regular legislative session.

As has been its practice with The Nerve, Haley’s office did not respond to a request seeking comment on her or other state officials’ potential involvement in that deal.

Reach Brundrett at rick@thenerve.org.