An insider account of a backroom maneuver by Gov. Nikki Haley’s staffers indicates that the governor’s office has been running political calculations, hoping to mute the blowback from a scandal over tragically flawed child welfare services at her Department of Social Services.
State senators began holding hearings in January on preventable child fatalities tied to DSS. On March 19, citing well-placed legislative sources, Free Times first reported that Haley’s Chief of Staff Ted Pitts and Director of Legislative Affairs Katherine Veldran had met with fellow Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Haley supporter from way back, to admonish her for participating in a senate DSS oversight subcommittee and to warn her against embarrassing the governor or hurting her chances of re-election in the course of the DSS probe.
Since then, the strain the DSS scandal has placed on the two women’s relationship has become high profile. Two weeks ago, Haley drew national amusement and overshadowed DSS Director Lillian Koller’s long-awaited appearance before the subcommittee when remarks appeared on her Facebook page accusing Shealy of smearing Koller with allegations of godlessness.
Dismayed by her public chastening, which she contends was baseless, Shealy denies spreading word that Koller is an atheist, saying that she had merely reported hearing such a rumor to Haley staffers in confidence.
In the wake of Koller’s testimony, Sen. Joel Lourie called for Haley to fire Koller. Shortly after Haley’s Facebook comments went viral, Shealy joined the Democrat-led call for Koller’s removal.
On Monday, Shealy elaborated on her meetings with Pitts and Veldran, while insisting she continues to stand behind the governor, wholeheartedly supporting her campaign for re-election.
“This has nothing to do with politics,” she says. “If I don’t ever get elected again, it’s fine with me.”
According to Shealy, Haley’s staffers summoned her to meet in the conference room at Haley’s office shortly after she was quoted in a local press report about the subcommittee’s efforts to sort out sharply conflicting accounts of DSS management. Shealy said she cannot remember whether the meeting occurred shortly before or after the subcommittee’s first hearing on Jan. 15.
“They said it looked embarrassing the way it was reported,” Shealy says. “It was like, ‘You shouldn’t be saying things because people will take it the wrong way,’ like I’m against the governor — which I corrected them on, which I’ve continued to do all throughout this thing.”
“I still support the governor, but I’m on the side of children. This has nothing to do with whether I support the governor or not, but they said that I sounded like I was against the governor and I was in essence scolded.”
Shealy says she has no idea whether Pitts and Veldran were acting on instructions from Haley or independently out of concern for the governor’s political health.
“They were mad at me. It was obvious that I was being fussed at,” she continues. “I think it was to see if I could be intimidated into calling [the subcommittee’s hearings] off. That’s how it felt.”
Haley’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Shealy says she later had a second, more cordial meeting with Pitts and Veldran, when the two visited her in her Senate office for what was essentially a status update on the DSS oversight subcommittee. Shealy says it was then that she gave the Haley staffers a “heads up” on the rumor about Koller being atheist and was informed of Koller’s Jewish faith. She said Haley’s Facebook distortion of that interaction blindsided her.
“In my heart of hearts, I would love to believe that a staffer [posted] that, but you know [Haley’s] thing is, she’s always said, ‘I do my own Facebook page.’ That’s been her claim to fame,” Shealy says.
In related news, another child associated with DSS died last week in Richland County. Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland), citing local officials with firsthand knowledge, informs Free Times that in early March a prematurely born infant was sent home from a local hospital with a heart-monitoring device. Shortly afterward, a doctor who’d encountered the child informed DSS that the mother was not employing the monitor as instructed and that the child’s life was in danger.
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts declined to comment on the death Monday, saying he’s still awaiting test results on the child’s remains.
DSS has issued a statement confirming the child died from a lack of proper medical care and saying that a county caseworker had immediately opened an investigation following receipt of the report from a “local medical provider,” but had been unable to locate the family after at least five attempts.
Asked for comment on the latest reported DSS tragedy, Shealy says, “You know, Lillian Koller said if her resigning would save one more child’s life, she would quit, so maybe she should use her own best judgment and leave. The woman needs to go. If she were smart, she would resign. If she cared about the governor, Koller would resign.”
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