Another day, another scandal at the S.C. Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation (LLR).
This time, a former LLR employee has joined other sources at the agency in alleging that S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley has provided her director with a “hit list” of insufficiently loyal employees at the agency. Haley is alleged to have obtained the list from Ron Cook – a family friend and LLR bureaucrat who has been flexing his political muscle at the agency since Haley took office in January.
Neither Haley’s office or a spokeswoman for LLR director Catherine Templeton responded to our request for comment, however a source close to Templeton denies that she has ever been provided with such a list.
Mark Kelly, an investigator who was fired from his job earlier this year, says that this so-called “Ron Cook Book” may have been provided to Templeton – who according to numerous sources at the agency is weeding out employees who are not sufficiently loyal to the governor.
Guess she’s just following Haley’s Nixonian example, right?
Cook is a former S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) agent who was placed in charge of a newly-created “Office of Enforcement” at LLR shortly after Haley took office. His access to the governor stems from the fact that his wife has been one of the primary caregivers to Haley’s children. Also, S.C. First Gentleman Michael Haley recently attempted to get Cook assigned to Haley’s security detail – overtures that were rebuffed by former SLED chief Reggie Lloyd.
Cook has a long history of questionable behavior – including a racist email that was inadvertently sent to his colleagues earlier this year. Cook received no disciplinary action as a result of the email – which we’re told included content similar to a racist flyer that was found a few years ago on a South Carolina lawmakers’ desk.
According to Kelly and other sources at the agency, Cook likes to brag about his proximity to the governor – and has made specific reference to his “Cook Book,” warning his colleagues that crossing him means losing their jobs.
One agency employee recently told FITS that he does “all I can to avoid (Cook)” while other agency employees refer to Cook derisively as “the governor’s babysitter.” Several female employees also tell FITS that Cook is “overly aggressive” in his flirtation with them.
Supporters of Templeton claim that she was not aware of Cook’s proximity to Haley when she assumed control of the agency back in January. In fact, they claim that Templeton only learned of Cook’s “Haley connection” after she chastised him him over an unspecified matter.
Our sources at the agency dispute that claim, however.
“We’ve been warned not to speak ill of Haley,” one LLR employee told us.
As for Kelly, he says the agency told him he was fired because he “mouthed off” during a mandatory diversity seminar conducted by Carl Wells, the Director of Access and Equity/Diversity Training at the University of South Carolina’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs.
Kelly and other employees claim that Wells – a Baptist minister – belittled Kelly’s patriotism and his religion during the meeting. Wells disputes this account, however, telling FITS that his comments are “being misrepresented.”
Meanwhile, sources close to Templeton claim that Kelly made racist comments at the meeting – a charge Kelly vehemently denies.
“This is Ron Cook trying to cover his butt right now,” Kelly said. “The bottom line is they messed up and they’re trying to come up with anything they can find to muddy the water.”
Kelly said he has statements from employees who attended the meeting that support his version of events – and that he will sue anyone at the agency who accuses him of making racist comments for defamation of character. Meanwhile, Wells says he has “documentation” regarding Kelly’s comments.
As for Templeton’s assessment of the situation?
“She’s not there enough to evaluate the situation,” Kelly says, echoing concerns that Templeton is a part-time director. “She’s getting bad information.”
Kelly claims that the real reason he was fired stems back to 2009 – when he was coaching a Pony League baseball team on which Cook’s son participated. Kelly says that Cook was irate over the fact that his son was not receiving enough playing time – and angrily confronted him in the parking lot after a game. In addition to cursing Kelly in front of their children, Cook is alleged to have sprayed his vehicle with gravel from his truck.
Ordinarily, we’d view such a report with a healthy does of skepticism – but another sources recently told FITS that Cook sprayed gravel on his vehicle in a completely unrelated incident.
What a soap opera right?
Speaking of soap operas, FITS reported last week on the saga of Tony Kennedy – a former LLR investigator who was fired despite having a spotless sixteen-year record at the agency. Kennedy was terminated for allegedly deviating from his assigned route in a state-owned vehicle, although he claims that the agency fired him for protesting its discriminatory hiring practices.
Kennedy is suing the agency for wrongful termination.
Templeton made headlines earlier this year for some of her questionable hires – now it’s her firing practices that are landing her in hot water. Also, the latest LLR scandals come just two months after a legislative audit blasted Templeton’s agency for its laziness in responding to licensing inquires. According to that report, LLR’s licensing division failed to answer a whopping 27 percent of the phone calls it received – while staff at the agency “spent an average of 36 percent of their time on calls or after call work when 70 percent is a reasonable expectation.”
Supporters of Templeton blame all of the recent bad news on Randy Bryant – a former assistant deputy director who was fired from LLR earlier this year.
“He’s the one who’s out there stirring all of this up,” a Templeton ally tells us. “He needs to let it go. The guy lost his job and he’s lucky that’s all he lost.”
Ordinarily, we don’t care who cabinet directors hire or fire. In fact, we’ve repeatedly argued that more of state government should fall under the governor’s cabinet – and that those agency leaders should have broader discretion in staffing decisions. We still believe that … although in Haley’s case, it would certainly appear that cronyism – not competence – is driving the decisions.
Also, if it’s proven that Haley’s supporters ginned up false pretenses as an excuse to get rid of employees they deemed to be insufficiently loyal, watch out. Something like that could cause this scandal to jump to a higher energy level …