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E-mail shows Commerce Dept. priorities

November 16, 2001

Several months of e-mail involving top state Commerce Department leaders reveal a great deal about priorities at the agency, and golf outings are near the top of the list.

The e-mail messages also support local economic developers' fears of a two-tiered playing field and give a glimpse of the agency's willingness to make state business-hunting expeditions compatible with travel preferences of leaders' wives.

The missives also are notable for what's not there: The top leaders of an economic development agency with a commitment to recruiting high-tech industries did not use e-mail to communicate directly with each other.

In a Freedom of Information request, The Associated Press asked to review all correspondence and e-mail between Wayne Sterling, the agency's former chief of staff, and Commerce Secretary Charlie Way. However, Commerce Department lawyer Karen Manning said there was no direct e-mail between the two men.

''Any e-mail communications by Secretary Way and Mr. Sterling was via their assistants, Reve Richardson and Elinor Stevens, both of whom sent e-mails in their own names on behalf'' of Way and Sterling, Manning wrote.

Sterling and Beth Braswell, the department's communications director, resigned suddenly on Sept. 17. They have since taken economic development jobs for Henry County, Va.

In the 168 e-mails the agency provided, golf appeared to be Sterling's tool of choice in luring business to South Carolina. Golf is discussed in 33 of the e-mail messages, more frequently than the state's close ties with the Southeast U.S./Japan and Southeast U.S./Korea trade conferences.

On July 3, Braswell told Stevens she was worried about an upcoming round. ''It could all go down the tubes if I don't get money from Jay Specter because Charlie is not going to be happy about spending state $$.''

Specter recalls that outing and that he was having problems with his company, Insurall Casualty Group, setting up a call center in Hemingway. The town had increased costs for supplying water service to the facility, scheduled to open in January, by $20,000, he said.

The group talked on the course about the issues then worked out details on the drive back to Columbia, Specter said. The center ''is almost complete due to help from ... Wayne Sterling.''

In a July 31 e-mail to Stevens, Braswell talks about an August meeting with economic developers from around the state.

Three other Commerce leaders ''had been very adamant about not mixing local developers and some of my other key allies -- Bank of America, Scana, Progress Energy, Duke, Wachovia (basically my key contributors). So in the meeting today, I suggested that I offer these folks the opportunity to come by at a different time,'' Braswell wrote.

''We felt this group needed to feel special,'' Manning said. The note isn't about segregating local people from companies with close ties to the agency, she said.

In an e-mail to Stevens, Braswell criticizes Colleton County Development Director Tom Way, who had offered Sterling a strategy for selling prospects on rural counties. He ''has been doing a hatchet job on us out in the community. In addition, I can't find any other allies who want to be on a trip with him. He was not on our list of allies to include for the coming year,'' Braswell wrote.

The Colleton County developer was surprised. ''I was just offering constructive criticism. I think constructive criticism is helpful,'' he said Monday.

That e-mail had unfortunate wording, Manning said. Agency employees have since been told they need to be aware e-mail is subject to disclosure under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

It was reported last week that contributions from companies with close ties to Commerce had been used to pay touring expenses for Mary Way, Becky Sterling and Gov. Jim Hodges' wife, Rachel.

An e-mail from Stevens to Braswell on May 18 shows how wives could have affected business trip itineraries.

''Wayne objects to leaving the women in one place for several days because he says that he has to pay the hotels if Becky doesn't travel on his itinerary. He mentioned that she would like to go to London and Paris and it looks as if neither of these are on the trip,'' Stevens wrote.

Manning didn't think those desires affected plans. Still, there was a concern spouses have something to do during the day, she said.

The e-mail offers no insight into why Sterling and Braswell resigned, and Way has refused to offer details.

The Associated Press. Source:


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