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Less than two weeks before her appointees to the board of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) betrayed our state’s economic and environmental interests by giving the green light to the Port of Savannah’s expansion plans, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley was feted by Georgia business leaders at a $1,000 a plate luncheon in downtown Atlanta.

Said to be organized by prominent Atlanta attorney and Georgia Chamber of Commerce leader Eric Tanenblatt – whose law firm does all sorts of infrastructure and maritime work – Haley’s Atlanta event was attended by several donors with direct connections to the Savannah Port (and possibly even a pair of Georgia Ports Authority board members).

Even deeper connections between Haley and Port of Savannah-related interests have been alleged, but FITS is continuing to independently confirm those reports.

Haley’s office has previously denied that the governor attended any fundraiser “affiliated with the Savannah port” (which we noted at the time sounded like a qualified denial).

News of Haley’s Atlanta fundraiser – which was held on October 28 – first appeared on FITS three weeks ago.

A week later – just hours before Haley’s board reached its controversial decision on the Savannah project – our website published a follow-up report in which Haley is alleged to have been offered a plum political favor from the head of the Georgia State Ports Authority in exchange for her role in what’s now being referred to as the “Savannah River Sellout.”

Specifically, our sources say that Georgia Ports Authority chairman Alec L. Poitevint II – a major GOP donor who will help select speakers for next year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida – has been negotiating with Haley and her political consultant Jon Lerner to land the governor a coveted prime time speaking gig at the event.

Nikki Haley: Bought Off By Georgia?

Money, favors, etc. – all to hand a major competitive advantage to our neighboring state, which has already been incredibly successful when it comes to luring maritime business away from the Port of Charleston.

Assuming the decision reached by Haley’s SCDHEC board is allowed to stand, the Port of Savannah would be able to handle larger container ships – which would further enhance its competitive advantage at the expense of the Port of Charleston and effectively eliminate any chance that a deep water port will ever be constructed in Jasper County, S.C.

The end result could wind up being a net loss of billions of dollars for the Palmetto State’s economy.

The SCDHEC decision also guarantees that U.S. taxpayers will be on the hook for Savannah’s expansion – rather than private capital going to fund a Jasper County facility that would create thousands of South Carolina jobs and cause much less damage to the environment.

As we’ve noted in several previous posts, Haley’s decision to hand Georgia the keys to its port expansion project is a sudden and stunning reversal of her prior rhetoric.

Shortly after her 2010 election, Haley instigated a major spat with Georgia – sending a clear warning across the Savannah River regarding port-related issues.

“You now have a governor who does not like to lose,” Haley told a cheering crowd of S.C. State Ports Authority supporters in Charleston last November. “Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don’t have the patience to let it happen anymore.”

Last month, though – right around the time that Georgia donors began stroking checks to her campaign – Haley’s tune began to change.

“Every port is different, and every port has its challenges,” Haley told Savannah’s WJCL/FOX 28 last month. “We have to say ‘What do we need to do that is right for the region?’ Our goal is to make sure every port (in the region) is successful.”

Haley is facing several investigations into the SCDHEC decision.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office is investigating the matter on behalf of the Savannah River Maritime Commission – the state agency that has been empowered with representing South Carolina’s interests in these matters – and may pursue legal action at the commission’s request.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler (R-Cherokee) is holding a hearing of his Medical Affairs committee – which has oversight over SCDHEC – on November 29. Peeler specifically requested that Haley and several members of her staff attend the hearing and “be prepared to testify” – a request which Haley has refused.

Haley has offered to turn over emails and other documents related to the SCDHEC decision to Peeler, although given her office’s policy of destroying public documents it’s not immediately clear what that offer is worth.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that this October 28 luncheon may not be the only event at which Georgia interests contributed financially to Haley. More importantly, it’s worth noting that these interests may also be stroking checks to political action committees and other advocacy groups that Haley is allegedly affiliated with.

UPDATE II: Sources tell FITS that a pair of mainstream media reporters were  provided with specific details of the Haley event in Atlanta “days ago” and chose to sit on the story.

UPDATE III: Gina Smith of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper is now confirming that “an Atlanta-area law firm held a fundraiser for Haley that brought in $15,000 in campaign contributions” although her editors chose to fold the story into a recap of Haley’s refusal to attend Peeler’s hearing. 

UPDATE IV: Yvonne Wenger of The Charleston Post and Courier reports on the fundraiser in Atlanta on November 24, 2011, Scrutiny Growing on Haley Port Role.