The search for a new S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control director will be reopened now that Eleanor Kitzman has chosen not to seek the position.
Kitzman withdrew her name Sunday from consideration as DHEC director, just three days after being grilled by Democratic state senators about her lack of experience and conflicting statements they said she had made.
The Senate, which was to continue hearings this week, must confirm nominees for DHEC director.
Kitzman, a Texas native, has no background in environmental and health matters. A former insurance department chief in South Carolina and Texas, she is a friend and campaign donor to Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.
Haley recommended Kitzman to the eight-member DHEC board. The board did not seek any other applications for the post, unlike what the panel has done in the past.
In a letter Sunday to DHEC board chairman Allen Amsler, Kitzman said she was reminded in church that running the agency was not “about me; there is a bigger, more important picture to consider.’’
Amsler said the board would begin a new search.
Kitzman’s one-page letter said she knows from “recent personal experience how this scenario plays out.’’
Her letter did not elaborate on what she meant by that, but Kitzman said “my only purpose in becoming director was to serve the board, the agency, its employees and stakeholders, and the citizens of South Carolina, none of which will benefit from a protracted confirmation process, regardless of the outcome.
“There are many ways to serve, and I will continue to do so in order to pay forward the amazing gifts that God has bestowed upon me.’’
DHEC is one of the state’s largest agencies. Its duties are broad, ranging from regulating hospital expansions to checking water quality and issuing pollution discharge permits.
Kitzman, 58, was questioned for hours Thursday during the first day of her confirmation hearings. Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, was among those asking about what he said were conflicting statements to the committee he serves on. Her attendance at a Texas fundraiser for Haley sparked questions.
During the hearing, packed with lobbyists and interest group representatives, Kitzman also said she had defaulted on a student loan that she since has paid off and paid a $250 late penalty related to a professional license. Kitzman also said she had been sued for outstanding debt tied to her 2010 campaign for lieutenant governor, paying $50,000 to settle lawsuits.
Reached Sunday night, Democratic Sens. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg and Joel Lourie of Columbia applauded Kitzman’s decision to withdraw. Both said she might not have been confirmed by the Senate Medical Affairs Committee.
They urged the DHEC board to conduct a thorough search for the director’s position, as it did when the board chose Catherine Templeton from among 250 candidates three years ago. Templeton quit in early January and Kitzman was nominated within four days of that decision without any other applications being sought.
“Ms. Kitzman made the right decision,’’ Lourie said Sunday night. “It is unfortunate that the governor and the board of DHEC have done the citizens of South Carolina a great disservice with this nomination. The way the process unfolded was an insult to the employees of the agency and the people of the state.’’
Lourie and Hutto said Kitzman would have faced more intense questions this week. Hearings were to have continued Tuesday in Columbia. Both said last week’s first round of questions was only the beginning of what was likely to be a lengthy grilling.
“I thought the questions (this) week were going to be twice as intense as the questions last week,’’ Hutto said. “This was not going well for her.
“The questioning pointed out the fact that she has had no background in this subject matter. If she’d have been nominated for an insurance position, she’d have had no problems.’’
Haley’s office issued a statement Sunday night saying that Kitzman’s withdrawal “is a loss to South Carolina, and will be a gain to whatever organization picks her up.” Haley’s statement said she recommended Kitzman as she had other directors for state agencies. She called Kitzman “an intelligent, hardworking person’’ who would have helped DHEC.
The agency’s board, which chose Kitzman, is appointed by Haley. Some senators and environmental groups said the board should have made the decision after a thorough process.
Amsler issued a statement Sunday saying the board will “immediately convene to begin the process of identifying the replacement nominee.” He called Kitzman’s withdrawal an “unfortunate occurrence’’ for South Carolina.
The Conservation Voters of South Carolina, which has been critical of Kitzman as the nominee, said more than 1,000 people signed a petition asking that the Senate insist that a “qualified director’’ with management experience be sought.
It was not clear Sunday night whether Kitzman would keep a temporary $74-per-hour job given to her by the agency's acting director until the confirmation process was completed. Hutto said he assumed she would resign the position.
“With the withdrawal of Eleanor Kitzman, the DHEC board has the opportunity to conduct the sort of thorough search that is necessary for our state’s public health and environmental agency,’’ the group said in a release Sunday night. “DHEC has a large and complex mission and touches the lives of all South Carolinians. DHEC enforces the laws that maintain the safety of our drinking water, prevent our children from being exposed to asbestos, and keep hazardous waste out of our lakes. Too much is at stake: If the DHEC leader fails, lives are on the line.’’
Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed to this story.