Cindi Ross Scoppe

February 26, 2014

Scoppe: Legislative oversight begins with agency directors

I DIDN’T give much thought to the mini-drama that unfolded when Sen. Mike Fair tried to stifle questions during Corrections Director Bryan Stirling’s confirmation hearing about a judge’s ruling that the agency had systematically abused mentally ill inmates. Oh, I thought, it’s just those senators displaying their peculiar sensibilities. Again.

I DIDN’T give much thought to the mini-drama that unfolded when Sen. Mike Fair tried to stifle questions during Corrections Director Bryan Stirling’s confirmation hearing about a judge’s ruling that the agency had systematically abused mentally ill inmates. Oh, I thought, it’s just those senators displaying their peculiar sensibilities. Again.

Then two days later, a reader asked me to write about the Senate’s obligation to do a better job screening the people governors appoint to run state agencies, as a follow-up to my column about the Legislature’s new responsibility to provide oversight of the way state agencies carry out the laws it has passed.

“The board system was abolished for well-considered reasons, but it has resulted in the politicization of appointments and shorter tenure at the pleasure of governors,” my correspondent wrote. “That is not necessarily all bad, but it raises the increased responsibility of the legislature to demand that appointees be experienced and successful in their fields,” that they be appointed “based upon nationally recognized qualifications” and that they “feel secure in their tenure and make recommendations based upon facts rather than expediency and populism.”

These are not new concerns, they are fairly widespread, they played directly into the Stirling confirmation hearing, and, I realized as I read the note, we haven’t talked about them recently enough.

There are actually two issues at play here. One is whether agency directors have expertise in their fields. The other is whether they’re willing to buck the boss. The latter is something we tend to want them to do when we disagree with their boss, and want them not to do when we agree. Which is to say that it is more about whether we believe governors should be able to appoint people who share their vision. And I think they should.

The question of qualifications is grayer, depending on how you define the term.

I agree with Sen. Lindsey Graham that the president ought to have wide latitude to appoint Supreme Court justices of his choosing, regardless of what I think of a president’s political philosophy. But I also agree that those justices ought to be experienced attorneys with high marks from the American Bar Association.

I agree that if we allowed the governor to appoint the state’s chief military officer, rather than maintaining our banana-republic system of electing the adjutant general, we should require that person to be a federally recognized general officer, or promotable to such a rank. Actually, we ought to require that regardless of how he comes into office.

But you can have a perfect resume and still be a disaster. Consider the prime example my correspondent gave of the problem of allowing governors a free hand to appoint agency directors: former Corrections Director Mike Moore, whose throw-away-the-key mentality many cite as the root cause of the abuse of mentally ill inmates. Mr. Moore had worked his way up through the Texas prison system, the previous 10 years overseeing a region with twice as many prisoners as South Carolina. By the professional-qualifications standard, he passed with flying colors.

On the other hand, consider the Senate proposal to create statutory criteria for the superintendent of education: Retired Clemson President Jim Barker is among many more-than-qualified educators who would not qualify for the job, because he doesn’t have a graduate degree in education or public policy or a law degree. Nor would the Superintendent Mick Zais or his predecessor, Jim Rex.

But with or without criteria written into the law, the Senate needs to do a better job vetting gubernatorial appointees. And that starts with a full, robust confirmation hearing that explores the candidate’s ability to do the job and his approach to the job.

The Senate provides that on occasion. When Gov. Nikki Haley appointed labor lawyer Catherine Templeton to run the Department of Health and Environmental Control, senators seriously explored the question of how someone without any relevant experience could manage one of the state’s largest and most complex agencies. Other times, though, their inquiries have focused on whether appointees would carry out the governor’s vision — with “no” being the desired answer.

Which I suppose is better than the way senators used to do things.

When I first started covering the Legislature, back when governors appointed only board members, the only time an appointee ran into trouble was if a senator found that person “personally obnoxious” — a term that never was defined.

Even after lawmakers allowed governors to appoint some agency directors, asking relevant questions about their background and experience was considered impertinent. One of my favorite examples was when the Senate Judiciary Committee considered one of then-Gov. Jim Hodges’ appointees to the Santee Cooper board. When members tried to ask about his businesses — including the video-gambling machines in them (this was when the Legislature still was trying to outlaw video gambling) — Chairman Don Holland cut them off. “He’s a qualified elector from the district he’s appointed to,” the chairman said, as if that should answer anybody’s questions.

Which brings us back to the Senate Corrections Committee review of Mr. Stirling, and Sen. Marlon Kimpson’s insistence on asking him about the ruling that his agency had violated the constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates, in some cases causing their deaths.

I wouldn’t have rejected Mr. Stirling for taking the advice of the attorneys who had been fighting the lawsuit for nearly a decade, when he had been on the job just four months. Recall, for instance, that Bill Byars, the respected retired judge who turned around the Department of Juvenile Justice and wowed everyone across the political spectrum as Corrections director, hadn’t done anything to change the course of this case during the three years he was in the position.

But the idea that it was inappropriate to broach that topic during a confirmation hearing was … well, it was like traveling back to the old days.

What could be more relevant than the director’s opinions about a ruling that uncovered shocking and widespread abuse of vulnerable human beings, and that could cost our state untold millions of dollars?

Sen. Fair declared that “This line of interrogation is not appropriate for this committee” and that “it’s just not wise” to question Mr. Stirling about the lawsuit, since it’s being appealed.

That’s true if the goal of the Senate is to help the agency win an appeal. Not so much if the goal is to provide oversight of the way executive agencies are doing their job. Which is what it ought to be and what it needs to be.

And that’s something that starts with asking serious questions about the people the governor appoints to lead those agencies.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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