Scoppe: Lesson from DEW shakeup not what you think

Associate EditorFebruary 20, 2013 

 

WHEN THINGS started unraveling at the Department of Employment and Workforce, they did so with dizzying speed.

It started two weeks ago, when Democrats accused Gov. Nikki Haley of declaring war on rural South Carolina after her agency announced a cost-cutting move to stop providing in-person help for people filing unemployment claims in 14 rural counties.

Then the latest report came out from the federal government, estimating that the agency made $54 million in improper payments last year and had the eighth-worst fraud rate in the nation. That provoked the ire of some Republicans who already were outraged that the agency hadn’t immediately stopped paying every claim they considered questionable after the Legislature tightened the rules last year.

The agency was still trying to explain what a big improvement the numbers represented from the previous year and how aggressively it is pursuing fraud charges — while fighting back suggestions, by a would-be vendor trying to sell its fraud-detection package, that the errors were easily detectable — when Democrats fired the next salvo, during a committee meeting Thursday: The agency had given raises totaling $437,000 to 69 employees at the same time it was deciding to lay off 55 unemployment division workers.

Agency officials raised bipartisan ire by refusing to comment on the charge, absurdly claiming it would violate employees’ privacy. More senators piled on with questions about employee training sessions held at the beach. And within a day, Director Abraham Turner had tendered a hand-written resignation to the governor.

It would have been a breathtaking turn of events at any agency, particularly given how drastic the end result seemed compared with the problems — or at least with the problems that we know about.

But it was particularly breathtaking at this agency. The agency where then-Director Ted Halley clung to his job for a year after then-Gov. Mark Sanford started complaining that he and the three legislatively appointed commissioners he worked for were wasting money and running up outrageous debts to the federal government. Mr. Halley only agreed to retire after a 2009 audit revealed that the agency that had turned an $800 million trust fund into a $1 billion deficit was ignoring fraud, paying benefits to workers who were fired for criminal actions and forcing businesses that didn’t lay off any workers to subsidize those that made doing so part of their business plans.

The commissioners held on to their own high-pay, low-work positions for another year, until the Legislature finally abolished the Employment Security Commission and replaced it with the new Department of Employment and Workforce that reports to the governor.

So you could certainly understand how the Democrats’ new attack dog, Rep. Todd Rutherford, got caught flat-footed, obviously still composing his litany of problems at the agency when the facts changed so completely as to render his critique moot. Not that that stopped him: He tacked the resignation on to the end of the litany and, just to make it sound really outdated, added a demand for the governor to “regain control of her agency,” and hit “send.”

What made this so embarrassingly outdated was that, one way or another, the governor obviously had regained control of her agency — or at the very least was in the process of doing so. Whether she told Mr. Turner to resign or he made that decision on his own — perhaps simply because he wasn’t going to put up with the headaches — the top management is on its way out, which is the most obvious way (though not always the best way) to clean up a mess at an agency.

This sudden resignation is no small point.

Although there is some overlap, the opponents of this governor and the opponents of gubernatorial power are not always the same people. But they have this convention in common: They are keeping a list of Cabinet agencies that have had significant problems, to bolster their case either that this governor should go or — and of course here we get to my point — that it would be a mistake to give governors authority over any more state agencies.

Certainly it’s fair for critics of this governor to make a list and remind voters of the missteps at her Cabinet agencies; giving voters the opportunity to judge a governor’s performance is a significant benefit of empowering governors. But if opponents of gubernatorial authority try to add this case to the list, they miss the point as completely as Mr. Rutherford missed his timing.

Clearly, we need agency directors who can get fraud under control and make smart personnel decisions and keep our Social Security numbers secure from hackers. But that’s not always going to happen, no matter who appoints them, so we need a government that can correct the mistakes when they occur.

When agencies are run by directors who report to a board, particularly a board whose members can’t be fired, the mistakes are far less likely to get corrected. The wrong people can stay in charge for months or years, as happened when things went really wrong at the old Employment Security Commission, and things can keep getting worse until the Legislature finally agrees on a way to fix them.

When the governor has the power to hire and fire agency directors, there’s a much greater chance that problems will be addressed quickly — or at least that someone new will be brought in with orders to correct the problems. We saw that last year at the Revenue Department. And now, for what appear to be much less serious problems, we’ve seen it at the Department of Employment and Workforce.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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