COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s 14-year-old daughter is working in the State House gift shop, raising questions about nepotism that the governor’s office declines to answer.
The shop is run by the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, a state agency whose director, Duane Parrish, is appointed by Haley.
Parks, Recreation and Tourism officials last week referred questions by The State newspapers about the teen’s job, including whether it was in the agency’s budget, to the governor’s office.
Starting on July 16 and continuing as recently as Wednesday, the governor’s office would not answer The State’s questions about young Haley’s job and nepotism, citing safety concerns. Instead, it admonished The State for asking questions.
“The State newspaper … should be ashamed for printing details of a 14 year old’s life and whereabouts, against the wishes of her parents and the request of the chief of SLED, who is ultimately responsible for her security,” Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, said in a statement to the newspaper July 17. “We have nothing more to say.”
Haley’s office did a turn-around Wednesday, giving some of the requested information to another newspaper, The (Charleston) Post and Courier.
Godfrey told the Charleston paper that Haley’s daughter usually works 20 to 25 hours a week and is paid $8 an hour, the same as all entry-level workers at the gift shop. The hours of other gift shop workers were not cut to accommodate the daughter’s position, he said.
A Parks, Recreation and Tourism spokesman, who last week referred The State’s questions to the governor’s office, told the Charleston paper that Haley’s daughter is one of seven to 12 workers in the gift shop who clean and stock shelves. The teen’s job was not advertised, he added, calling that standard procedure for seasonal positions.
The governor’s office still has not responded to questions about nepotism.
State law allows a 14 year old to work up to 40 hours a week between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. when school is out.
However, state law prohibits public officials from causing the employment of a family member to a position they supervise or manage, according to the State Ethics Commission.
Haley does not supervise the gift shop. Instead, she supervises the agency that operates it.
The issue is not Haley’s daughter but the Republican governor’s judgment, said Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
“You don’t use your position to get your daughter a job. It’s not about the daughter. It’s about lack of judgment by the governor,” Harpootlian said. “The appearance of impropriety doesn’t seem to bother the governor.”
In South Carolina, with the nation’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and a governor who boasts of cutting state spending, the hiring of Haley’s daughter also raises questions of unfair favoritism.
“Even these minimum-wage jobs in this economy can be pretty tough to find,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Washington, D.C.,-based Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan think tank on government issues, including ethics. “While this is probably a small-potatoes case, it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest and strikes me as a politically tone-deaf decision.”
A half-dozen ethics experts and legislators declined to comment on whether the job constituted nepotism when contacted by The State. Most said they did not want to comment because of the involvement of Haley’s child.
“I admire the little girl for wanting to have a job,” said state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, a frequent Haley critic. “More youth should be like her. … I don’t have a problem with the governor trying to help her immediate family.”
At an impromptu press conference last week, a reporter for WSPA-TV in Spartanburg, Robert Kittle, asked Haley about her daughter working at the gift shop.
“Y’all are not allowed to talk about my children,” Haley responded.
Kittle pressed on, asking Haley if the story really wasn’t about nepotism — whether the governor had helped her daughter get the state job.
“None of that is true,” Haley responded. “That’s what makes me angry. Not only is this a story about my daughter, it’s a story that is based on false facts and none of that is true. Do not attack my children. Do not even talk about my children.”
Kittle then asked if the issue wasn’t about what the governor had done, not her daughter.
“I’m not going to talk about it anymore,” Haley said. “My children are off limits.”
After The State contacted the governor’s office last week, SLED Chief Mark Keel, appointed by Haley, called the newspaper to express concerns, in general, about security.
Haley’s office issued a statement from Keel: “In my 30 years-plus of experience at SLED, the security or activities of minor children of elected officials is something that the media in general has taken a ‘hands off’ approach to in reporting except as officially released by the elected official’s office.”
This case is different, said Mark Lett, executive editor of The State.
“It is not our practice to cover the children of sitting governors,” said Lett. “Most previous mentions of the Haley children were in connection with public events, where the children accompanied the governor or her husband. Several were ‘photo opportunities,’ where they were made available to the media.
“In this instance, the essential issue is whether it is appropriate for the daughter of the governor to be placed on the state payroll. The child was put in that position by adults in state government and in the Haley family. We have made no attempt to interview the daughter but have asked those adults for comment.”
The gift shop is about 30 paces away from the governor’s office. Five security officers were immediately visible only yards away within the State House Wednesday morning. The security presence normally is higher when the governor, who was in Aiken, and the Legislature, which is out of session, are present.
Visitors to the State House must pass through security checkpoints that include metal detectors and baggage screeners. The building and its grounds also are secured by a contingent of Department of Public Safety officers. Additional security officers, employed by the state Senate and S.C. House, also oversee the two chambers and office buildings. Earlier this month, Haley vetoed $75,000 that would have gone for additional security equipment for the State House’s garage.
In the past, Haley has not expressed concerns about her family’s security, posting family pictures on her public Facebook page. Since taking office in January 2011, Haley also has posted about her daughter’s dance recitals, shadowing her mother at work, serving as a vacation Bible school counselor, running in a race and working her first babysitting job. Haley also mentioned the name of her daughter’s orthodontist in a posting.
This is not the first time that a relative with ties to the governor has landed a Parks, Recreation and Tourism job. The wife of Haley’s chief of staff started working at the agency last year.