Less than a year after quitting her post as South Carolina’s top environmental official, Catherine Heigel took a job with a troubled water company that has clashed repeatedly with the state agency she ran.
It was the latest in a series of moves by Department of Health and Environmental Control officials to private industries regulated by the agency.
Heigel’s decision to take the job six months after she left DHEC has focused the spotlight on her and raised questions about whether South Carolina needs stronger ethics rules. At issue is a one-year state prohibition on public officials going to work with private businesses they regulated if those officials substantially were involved in regulating the business.
Heigel says she was not substantially involved in regulating Carolina Water and has a legal opinion from a law firm blessing her move. However, a leading river advocate sees it differently, saying Heigel was active in dealing with issues involving Carolina Water.
Either way, some lawmakers and government watchdogs say tougher rules would prevent the ethics questions that invariably pop up when state agency directors go to work for businesses their departments regulated.
“This needs more attention,’’ said Lynn Teague, vice president of the S.C. League of Women Voters.
The concern is that private businesses gain an unfair advantage at the public’s expense when they hire ex-state employees to deal with their former agencies. It’s a particular concern when state employees begin working for regulated companies soon after they leave public service.
South Carolina is filled with ex-DHEC workers who have gone through the so called “revolving door’’ to work for industries their former agency regulates.
In Heigel’s case, the former DHEC director is taking charge of Carolina Water at a time when the private utility needs to renew wastewater discharge permits with the agency. The status of those permits has remained unresolved for years because of concerns about water pollution in the lower Saluda River, according to DHEC.
At the least, agency heads should be required to get opinions from the state Ethics Commission on whether it is advisable to take certain jobs with private businesses, Teague said. Heigel relied on advice from the Nelson Mullins law firm to sanction the move before taking the Carolina Water job.
“Most people, if they know what is permitted and what isn’t, try to color within the lines,’’ Teague said.
‘I sat ... in a meeting with her’
State law requires a one-year waiting period before public officials can go to work for companies their agencies regulate. But it applies only if the employee was “directly and substantially’’ involved in matters affecting that company. Otherwise, an employee can go to work for a company immediately.
State Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, said the law needs a better definition of “directly and substantially.’’
“We need to look at that statute and more adequately define what substantially is, rather than leaving it in the air,’’ Clary said. “With Catherine Heigel, I don’t question her ethics.
“What I question is our statute. I’m a kind of black-and-white guy. I don’t like a lot of gray.’’
Teague said South Carolina might want to consider an outright one-year prohibition on agency heads taking jobs with industries their departments regulate, even if the agency heads insist they were not directly involved in overseeing that industry.
John Crangle, a government watchdog with the S.C. Progressive Network, agrees.
“It would be much clearer and cleaner’’ to have a one-year waiting period with no exceptions, he said.
Heigel, a Greenville lawyer praised by lawmakers for improving DHEC, said she has complied with state ethics laws.
“As far as the ethics question is concerned, I have fully complied with applicable ethics laws and wish to focus any discussion we might have on my plans and hopes for the future of CWS in South Carolina,’’ Heigel said in an email Tuesday to The State newspaper. “I look forward ... to making a positive difference for the company and our state.’’
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said he doesn’t know details of the state’s ethics law, but there’s no doubt that Heigel had a keen interest in trying to resolve outstanding DHEC concerns about Carolina Water’s discharges into the lower Saluda River.
Stangler said he and two lawyers met with Heigel about two years ago to discuss Carolina Water’s discharge permits.
“I sat down in a meeting with her, face to face, and spent a good bit of time discussing Carolina Water Service and their permits, and what the agency was going to do about them,’’ Stangler said.
Heigel also spoke about problems with Carolina Water during a hearing before a state House committee last year, records show.
‘Great at DHEC’
Heigel’s decision to join Carolina Water isn’t the first time she has moved between the private and public sectors.
Heigel spent years working for Duke Energy as a top-level S.C. executive and company attorney before being approached about the DHEC job in 2015. While at DHEC, she hired a former Duke official to run the agency’s water bureau, although no questions ever surfaced about how the agency regulated Duke.
As with Heigel, Department of Health and Environmental Control employees often are sought by private companies to help them deal with the state agency that issues pollution discharge permits and fines businesses if they don’t comply with the law. Those employees have particular knowledge about how DHEC works and how to navigate its bureaucracy.
With about 3,500 employees, DHEC is one of the state’s largest agencies. Its duties affect virtually every S.C. resident. Among other things, the agency issues birth certificates, regulates hospital expansions, tests water and air for pollution, considers permits for hog and chicken farms and oversees tattoo parlors.
In addition to Heigel, Carolina Water has hired DHEC spokesman Robert Yanity to do public relations. Yanity said he took the job last year, within weeks of leaving DHEC. He added that, as DHEC spokesman, he had no role in regulating Carolina Water.
Heigel’s knowledge could prove beneficial to DHEC while at Carolina Water.
The company has a long history of pollution violations and has been the target of lawsuits and enforcement actions by DHEC. During a 20-year period ending in 2013, Carolina Water and affiliated companies had more environmental violations than any other business or government in South Carolina, The State reported that year.
Those who know Heigel say she is a good candidate to clean up the company’s problems.
During her time at DHEC, she pushed state legislators to increase dramatically funding for programs that were failing to adequately protect health and the environment. Many environmentalists, who had criticized DHEC for years, praised Heigel’s efforts.
“Catherine was great at DHEC,’’ said state Rep. Chip Huggins, an Irmo Republican and critic of Carolina Water’s environmental record. “My experience is she did the right thing – and Carolina Water needs to do the right things. They need to clean up their act.’’