Insider's confession sparks latest Palmetto political scandal 

The Nikki Fits, week one

I first met Will Folks at a GOP stump event in early 2004. It was at the riverfront home of then state Rep. Catherine Ceips, who was ... well, that's a completely different Statehouse scandal. What made the day particularly memorable was the master of ceremony's desperate effort to find a wife for Thomas Ravenel, who was ... well, that's another completely different Statehouse scandal.

In a Hawaiian shirt with shorts and sandals, Folks tried to break the ice with me by going on and on about Ceips' good looks. In hindsight, part of her appeal must have been that desk in the Statehouse.

Now a popular political blogger in Columbia, Folks claimed last week that he had an "inappropriate physical relationship" in 2007 with state Rep. Nikki Haley. She has flatly denied the affair, but the allegations couldn't have come at a worse time. A frontrunner in the GOP gubernatorial primary, Haley had been basking in a surprising climb in the polls after an endorsement from national conservative darling Sarah Palin.

Folks has made a name for himself with scandalous Statehouse blind items on his site, FITSNews.com. And there are just as many posts about bikini models as there are about state policy issues. But he's been unwavering in his support for Haley, long before her aspirations for higher office took flight. Folks claims he was pressured into confirming the affair because of media inquiries.

"It is what it is, and aside from the Haley family — Michael, Nikki, Rena and Nalin — I feel no need to apologize or explain myself to anyone," he said in his May 24 confessional.

Soon after Folks went public, the Columbia Free Times posted a story it had been working on regarding the rumors. A Statehouse source tells us that the rumors have been around for at least a year. And, looking back, the relationship between the two was recognizably close. But apparently Haley's many foes in the legislature refused to run with the story because there was no proof.

All the Free Times had was an unnamed source claiming a year-old admission by Folks and second hand confirmation by former Haley staffer B.J. Boling (who now works for Congressman Gresham Barrett, her primary opponent). Regardless of the truth, it would have been the flimsiest of flimsy stories ... if it weren't for Folks' admission.

At first, Folks pledged not to speak about it again and offered no details. But that was likely because he didn't think he'd have to offer proof. Sources had told him the evidence was out there, including an allegedly compromising photo of the two. There would be a denial from the Haley campaign, of course, but it would be followed by leaked e-mails or incriminating photos — the kind of thing that has sealed the fate of other embarrassing S.C. political scandals.

But no one had anything. As the Haley campaign and big name supporters like Palin and Mitt Romney fired back at Folks' claims, it was now up to him to find the evidence. But it appears that any possible personal e-mails and text messages that could have confirmed the relationship seemed to have been deleted.

A post on May 25 at FITSNews noted that Folks had turned over two laptop computers, two cell phones, and an external hard drive to a forensic analyst, "to begin the process of extracting any additional relevant data."

Until he had enough to prove the infidelity, Folks dangled text and e-mail messages that suggested a conspiracy and confirmed his claim that he'd kept the Haley campaign informed about questions from reporters regarding the alleged affair for up to two weeks prior to his announcement. Haley had told reporters on May 24 that she had not been in contact with Folks regarding the allegations.

In one text, Haley campaign manager Tim Pearson tells Folks, "I'm telling you man, we keep this under wraps and nh (Haley) is going to win." Pearson confirmed the authenticity of the exchange, but said it was about beating back false accusations, not damage control.

As the week wore on, Folks continued to slowly release vague exchanges that he claimed further bolstered his argument. But it was far from a smoking gun. One e-mail exchange between he and Haley could have just as easily referred to Folks struggling with a particularly troubling kidney stone.

"Stay strong. Have faith," Haley allegedly wrote to Folks. "I'm sorry for any pain you are having to go through. You will be OK and better for it."

"I have considered leaving the whole business," Folks replied.

"Focus on healing yourself and clearing your mind," Haley wrote. "It will help you get everything into a realistic perspective. Only then can you make the right decisions for you and your family. You will get through this. I promise."

Come May 27, Folks released nearly 1,000 pages of his cell phone records. It documents roughly 600 calls between Folks and Haley in 2007, when the affair allegedly took place. During one two-month period, the pair spoke for more than 34 hours, including several late-night calls and one that lasted until 5 a.m. Of course, Haley countered that she had hired Folks as a consultant at the time. But the Statehouse was already out of session, and it wasn't a campaign year, so it's not clear what they had to talk about.

Folks lawyered up soon after the story broke. Haley has refused to release her own e-mail records to refute the affair claims. She vaguely suggests that she might respond with some court action — after the election.

What happens if it gets to the court? Let's go back to one message from Pearson, the Haley campaign manager. Folks texted at one point to say that he'd heard there was an affidavit being shopped around.

Pearson responded: "Ah. My initial thoughts is if it ain't from you or nh (Haley), then it's a tough sell."

Visit News+Opinion at charlestoncitypaper.com for complete primary election coverage, including up-to-the-minute poll results Tuesday night.


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