As questions continued Tuesday about the nominee to run South Carolina’s health and environmental agency, one of the state’s most powerful senators said lawmakers should more fully investigate candidates for state agency director jobs.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said the Senate has not been inquisitive enough in considering some nominees for office.
“I expect us to start looking at depth, and senators seeking whatever information they want,” Leatherman, the Senate president pro tempore, said after the upper chamber broke for the day. “I don’t anticipate confirmation until all the senators’ questions are answered and their concerns are handled.”
Leatherman, who said he has been guilty of not looking closely enough at nominations for agency director jobs, said that “over time, we have sort of not been doing the real in-depth” investigation of candidates. Aside from questions about the state’s environmental and health agency nominee, Leatherman said questions have come up about other agencies, such as the Department of Social Services.
Leatherman’s remarks follow Monday’s decision by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board to hire Eleanor Kitzman, a former state insurance chief in both South Carolina and Texas. The Senate must sign off on the nomination after a committee screens Kitzman.
Kitzman, who has little background in environmental and health regulation, is a political ally of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.
In a book she wrote, Haley credited Kitzman, 58, with helping persuade her to enter politics. Kitzman is a former South Carolina insurance director under Gov. Mark Sanford who Haley later chose to run the state Budget and Control Board. Kitzman left state insurance directors’ jobs in South Carolina and Texas after disputes arose over her leadership.
News reports show that Kitzman attended a political fundraiser for Haley in Texas in 2011, when contributions of $500 were suggested for those invited. The Texas native later told The Dallas Morning News that she did not help organize the fundraiser for Haley, although she did attend. Records in South Carolina show that Kitzman has made campaign contributions to Haley in the Palmetto State. She contributed $2,500 late in 2014, state Ethics Commission records show.
Kitzman’s leadership and business experience make her the right fit for DHEC, Haley said this week. A phone message left with Kitzman’s New York office was not returned. She has recently worked with Starr Companies, a property and casualty insurer out of New York.
Allen Amsler, picked four years ago by Haley to chair the DHEC board, said Kitzman is a sound choice to run the 3,500-employee agency, one of the state’s largest. Addressing the decision for the first time Tuesday, Amsler said “several possible candidates” were discussed before the board settled on Kitzman.
The often criticized agency improved under Catherine Templeton’s leadership, board members have said. Among its wide-ranging duties are overseeing hospital expansions, issuing pollution discharge permits, monitoring water quality, governing coastal development and regulating tattoo parlors.
“DHEC has made significant progress over the past three years, and the board believes that Eleanor Kitzman, with her strong leadership background, is the best person to keep the agency moving in the right direction,” according to a statement from Amsler released Tuesday.
The decision, however, continued to cause ripples Tuesday among Democrats in the Senate.
Concerns focused on the timing of the decision and Kitzman’s qualifications. DHEC’s board did not conduct an extensive search for a new director. It chose Kitzman on Monday, four days after director Templeton announced her resignation. Templeton was chosen in 2012 over 250 candidates.
“I’m looking forward to a long and in-depth review of what happened in Texas and why she is supposed to be the most qualified to run what may be the most important agency in our state – with what appears to be no experience in health care of environmental issues,” Columbia Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson said.
A hearing by the Senate Medical Affairs Committee will be held to determine her qualifications, said chairman Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee. He did not predict when the meeting will be held and he declined to weigh in on the debate. The Senate must approve Kitzman if she is to become DHEC director, a job that would pay more than $150,000.
“The concern is whether she has the background necessary,” Columbia Democratic Sen. John Scott said.
Democratic Sens. Joel Lourie of Columbia, Brad Hutto of Orangeburg, Floyd Nicholson of Greenwood and Vincent Sheheen of Camden also questioned the choice of Kitzman. Jackson, Lourie, Hutto, Scott and Nicholson are on the screening committee that will look at Kitzman’s qualifications. Sheheen is a rival to Haley, having run twice against her for governor.
“It smells a lot like cronyism,” Sheheen said. “We ought to look very hard, ask questions, connect the dots and make a decision. This is a concern, but the Senate also has been burned with other appointments.”
Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed to this story.