When Will Folks announced to the world on May 24 that he allegedly had an affair with Nikki Haley, many were shocked, but perhaps none more so than Corey Hutchins.

“I woke up in the morning, turned on my computer, and was looking at the news, and I saw that he had confessed to having an inappropriate physical relationship with Nikki Haley on his website,” Hutchins, a Columbia Free Times reporter, says. “At that point, it made publishing what we already had a whole lot easier.”

For approximately a year, Hutchins had been investigating rumors about an affair between Haley and Folks, and a story about the allegation was virtually set for publication. With Folks’ claim on the internet, Hutchins updated his story, and the Free Times put it online.

As Hutchins reported in the May 24 Free Times story “Folks admitted to Haley affair a year ago,” rumors about a sexual relationship between Haley and Folks had been circulating for several years. Other sources we spoke to acknowledged they had heard about the rumor long before Folks’ allegation was posted on FITSNews.

Hutchins says, “There were people saying publicly back in 2007 or 2008 that Nikki Haley’s car was parked outside of Will Folks’ house. Now, those were things that I heard back then. But there are all sorts of rumors around the Statehouse all the time.”

He adds, “At the time I understood that he was working for her, and that he worked out of his house and that was his office. So maybe that’s why her car was there.”

Indeed, Haley had hired Folks, who in addition to running FITSNews also runs the political consultant firm View Politik. Folks was hired to replace political consultant BJ Boling, who left to work for the John McCain campaign.

With that in mind, Hutchins dismissed the rumors. “At the time, I didn’t think too much of it.”

Later, a source told Hutchins that Folks had confessed to him about an alleged affair with Haley. Hutchins began to investigate in earnest. “I asked around. And the more people I spoke to about it, the more confident I became that the source was reliable,” he says. “And it wasn’t just one source, it was multiple sources.”

Hutchins also remembered a 2008 phone conversation he had with Haley and one later with a political operative. During the interview, a routine profile piece on Haley, who was running for re-election in the state House of Representatives, Hutchins asked the candidate about her relationship with Folks, who was doing consulting work for Haley. According to Hutchins, Haley immediately became defensive.

Many politicians use the FITSNews blogger’s services, but they do not like to acknowledge that they do because of negative opinions about Folks’ and his website. Critics believe Folks’ traffics in half-truths, innuendo, and outright lies. He’s also widely followed by politicos and political junkies. All of which, of course, can make him quite useful. Hutchins says that he chalked up Haley’s defensive behavior to being associated with Folks’ professionally.

But now Hutchins sees it differently. In fact, it’s the conversation that he had with a political operative immediately after his 2008 interview with Haley that stands out. In the phone call with the operative, minutes after the reporter ended the call with Haley, the unnamed politico asked Hutchins what he asked Haley to get her worked up. Hutchins then ran through the list of questions he asked her, all wonky policy stuff. Hutchins then says the operative asked him if he had said anything about Folks. The reporter said he had and then explained what he asked. The operative sounded relieved. And Hutchins was left a little dumbfounded, wondering what he had said to put Haley on the defensive.

Of the dozen or so sources that Hutchins recalls talking to, the reporter says that not all of them had heard directly from Folks that he had confessed to an affair with Haley. Wesley Donehue, communications and political director for the S.C. Senate Republican Caucus and the Marketing and Technology Director for the SCGOP, says he also heard Folks’ accusation firsthand. At the time, Donehue says he believed Folks, but now he does not.

When Hutchins was asked if he had spoken with sources who had reportedly heard from Haley herself about an alleged affair with Folks, Hutchins says, “I really can’t get into that too much.” He adds that he had received enough information to believe that she had told people.

One such person that Hutchins confronted was BJ Boling, a former Haley staffer and the man that many believed Haley had allegedly confessed to. Boling, a Gresham Barrett staffer at the time, declined to talk. Barrett lost to Haley in the 2010 gubernatorial run-off.

On May 13, after talking to a dozen sources and numerous conversations, Hutchins felt that the time had arrived to speak to Folks directly. “We had a pretty long conversation. He didn’t admit to it. He didn’t deny it,” Hutchins says. “I told him in that conversation I was probably going to write a story about it.”

After speaking with Folks, Hutchins then attempted to speak with Haley directly. He left a voice mail on Haley’s phone on May 14. The call was returned, but not by the gubernatorial candidate. It was her campaign manager, Tim Pearson.

Pearson had exchanged several texts with Folks on May 13 and 14 about the forthcoming Free Times article as well as how to address the allegation if it went public. Folks published the texts on FITSNews on May 26. According to one such text message to Folks, Pearson wrote, “I think we both deny it. I think an affadavit [sic] is something we can beat down. Legally and politically.”

A minute later he added, “I’m telling you man, we keep this under wraps and nh [Nikki Haley] is going to win.”

Not once in the text messages does Pearson or Folks deny the allegation. The texts also paint a portrait of Folks as a man clearly worried that the allegation will become public

While Pearson was aware of the allegations on May 13, Hutchins claims that on May 14 Pearson acted as if he had never heard the rumor before. According to the reporter, Pearson asked Hutchins why he had called Haley. Hutchins replied, “‘Actually, I was going to ask her if she had an affair with Will Folks.'”

Hutchins adds, “And [Pearson] laughed. And he said that’s ridiculous or something. And I said, I really don’t think it is and I talked to him about how I thought I had enough to go on. And he said, you’re on some pretty shaky ground here. And I said, well, I don’t think so.”

According to Hutchins, Pearson told him that Haley would not comment on the allegation. “He acted like, oh, this is just coming out of [left] field — this is ridiculous, where is this coming from — but it’s obvious that he had been waiting for a phone call,” Hutchins says.

“Now, after reading the text messages between him and Will, it sounded like they were well aware of this and it’s not like the first time that he heard it,” he says.

Pearson has not spoken with the City Paper despite several requests for an interview.

While Hutchins doesn’t believe that the impact of his story was weakened by Folks’ initial report, the Free Times reporter thinks the story could have been stronger.

“It would have been nice to get a direct comment from [Haley] about it before Will had come out with his allegations or his confessions or whatever you want to call it,” Hutchins says. “They did a very good job of handling her, and it’s obvious now from the type of messages that they knew something was in the pipe and they were going to protect her as much as possible.”

He adds, “I wanted to confront [Haley’s] husband about it. I thought it was important.”

Looking back, he says he missed an opportunity to approach both Haley and her husband Michael at the Sarah Palin endorsement rally, which Hutchins attended. “It would have been nice if I had done that,” Hutchins says, adding that a friend had called and invited him to go fishing around the time of the endorsement was taking place and he took off before Palin finished. Besides, he says, he felt like he’d pretty much heard enough.

“I thought there would be other opportunities,” Hutchins says.