When South Carolina gubernatorial nominee Nikki Haley left her $110,000-a-year job as a hospital fundraiser in April, the explanation was that she wanted to work full-time on her run for governor.
Records obtained by The Associated Press show her departure was anything but smooth. E-mails between Haley and her bosses show she did not want to leave or take a hiatus, as offered. After a negotiation between attorneys, she left with $35,000 severance and a promise from hospital administrators they would say nothing to embarrass her or question her integrity.
Her nearly two-year job with Lexington Medical Center, which she held while a state legislator, has come under fire from her opponent, Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen, as well as a newly formed group of GOP activists, who question why she got the job, its salary and the donations the foundation received during her tenure.
Her campaign spokesman defended her work.
"A big part of Nikki's job was to get as many different people and organizations involved in the foundation as possible," Rob Godfrey said Friday. "She did that, and she did it very well, by continuing existing foundation relationships and building new ones.
"Some of those involved groups and companies that have lobbyists, but, as the Ethics Commission makes quite clear, Nikki working with them to grow a nonprofit, community-focused organization is entirely proper."
To back that up, the campaign forwarded an Oct. 1 e-mail to its attorney from the commission, saying nothing in state law prohibits a public official from asking a lobbyist to give to a charity.
John Rainey, GOP Gov. Mark Sanford's appointed chairman of the state's economic advisory board, asked the U.S. attorney last month to investigate whether it violates federal law.
Haley, a Lexington Republican, started her fundraising job in August 2008 - a job created for her by the hospital's chief executive. The hospital needed a fundraiser, she was well-known and liked in the community, and it seemed like a good fit, since good contacts are essential in fundraising, said hospital marketing director Mark Shelley. Though she worked for the foundation, she was paid by the hospital, he said.
The hospital had no idea Haley would run for governor, Shelley added - a decision she announced in May 2009, some eight months after taking the job.
Under the April 23 agreement to part ways, Haley received nearly three months worth of salary, or $27,200, plus $8,000 for more than three weeks of unused vacation pay. Days later, her campaign and hospital spokespeople said she left voluntarily, after a successful February fundraising event.
But e-mails from March show animosity.
The foundation's director, Tim James, wrote hospital CEO Mike Biediger that he was having trouble arranging a meeting with Haley.
"Despite my constant efforts to have Nikki come in over the past three days, she has failed to come in to meet with me," the CEO wrote, adding Haley knew what the meeting was about. "To me, this exemplifies that [sic] fact that a leave of absence is warranted."
They met March 15, according to a March 30 e-mail, and James accused Haley of not working during the previous two weeks. He wrote she was being put on annual leave until the issue was resolved, unless she wanted to return to work according to her written duties - which included spending at least 10 hours weekly in the office and attending various meetings.
"I do not choose to take annual leave, nor do I consent to 'being placed on annual leave,'" Haley responded. She denied ever stopping work, accusing James of changing staff meeting days. She referred the issue to attorneys.
Haley said Friday she was very proud of her work with the foundation.
A February event featuring David Wilkins, former House speaker and U.S. ambassador to Canada, raised $72,000. The foundation raised $652,000 from Oct. 1, 2008, through Sept. 30, 2009 - the hospital's fiscal year. It has raised $1.2 million so far in the 2009-10 fiscal year, Shelley said. He could not break down how much was attributable to Haley.
Haley's specific job has not been filled, Shelley said, since the foundation has restructured her duties.
A 20-year member of the foundation board said Haley was particularly successful in getting doctors to contribute to the foundation.
"Functions did become profitable during that time, and they hadn't always been," said Bill Stilwell, who Haley's campaign gave as a reference, adding he only could give a limited perspective and knew nothing about her hiring or departure.
Businesses that gave large donations during Haley's tenure - while she was a member of the House Labor Commerce and Industry Committee and former member of its insurance panel - include Blue Cross Blue Shield. But a spokeswoman for South Carolina's largest insurer said it is normal for the company to host events for various hospitals.
The foundation also received smaller, $5,000 donations from payday lending companies, both while Haley led a banking subcommittee - where a proposed law reforming the industry died in 2008 - and after she moved to the House Education Committee in 2009, according to tax records. The donations were first reported by The State newspaper of Columbia.
But spokesmen for the payday lending companies said her job as a legislator had no bearing on their foundation gifts.
Spartanburg-based Advance America says its board members sit on other hospital boards and are committed to health care initiatives. The company has more than two dozen businesses in the Columbia area, and "we try to support as many things as we can to be a good corporate citizen," said its spokesman Jamie Fulmer.
He couldn't recall the company's last gift but said, "if they make a request, we'd certainly entertain that request."
Democratic nominee Sheheen is partner in a Camden law firm but has been able to do very little legal work for more than a year as he's campaigned. He has been a partner for about a decade, said his spokesman Trav Robertson.