Wayne Beam once was the most visible defender of South Carolina’s coast, pounding the table at public meetings and shepherding a young, aggressive staff to protect salt marshes, beaches and tidal creeks.
Today, instead of saving sand dunes as the state’s top coastal regulator, he helps people build near them. He’s the consultant to hire if you want a coastal construction permit. Friendly and knowledgeable, the well-connected Beam has been a development consultant on a number of high-profile coastal projects since he left the Department of Health and Environmental Control in 1996.
Beam’s switch from regulator to private consultant shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows DHEC.
Some of the agency’s best and brightest staff members leave every year to become consultants or private attorneys — often for the industry they had helped regulate. That new relationship sometimes raises ethical ethics questions — and at the least, the loss of experienced employees leaves DHEC with a less knowledgeable staff.
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Sometimes DHEC staff members leave the agency because private work pays better. Other times, they are frustrated by the lack of respect they get for doing regulatory work. In some cases, older staff members retire and begin new careers as consultants.
DHEC STAFF QUIT AT HIGHER RATES
So sought after are some staffers that a top official once called his agency “the University of DHEC.”
DHEC could not provide precise statistics on the number who have left for private-sector jobs, but records show staff members at DHEC quit at a higher rate than do workers at other state natural resource agencies. During the last five years, DHEC’s turnover rate has averaged 12 percent, compared with 9.5 percent at the state Department of Natural Resources and 10.2 percent at the Forestry Commission.
DHEC spokesman Thom Berry said he does not consider the agency’s turnover rate excessive. The state average was 13.7 percent the last five years.
Former Commissioner Doug Bryant said that when he led the agency, it was particularly difficult to retain nurses, environmental engineers and hydrologists — positions in substantial demand in the private world. Engineers averaged little more than a three-year stay, said Bryant, commissioner from 1993-2001.
The turnover rate for environmental engineers was at one point in recent years almost 18 percent, according to the Conservation Voters of South Carolina.
Top agency employees who have left for the private sector in recent years include Bryant, now a hospital consultant and lobbyist; deputy environment commissioner Lewis Shaw, an environmental engineering consultant; and Art Braswell, the agency’s former solid waste division director, now an environmental consultant.
Getting a DHEC employee to “switch sides” is often a golden opportunity for private consulting companies and law firms. Some of South Carolina’s most powerful law firms, including McNair and Nelson Mullins, have hired former agency attorneys.
“State agencies like DHEC are an excellent training ground,” said Mike Wooten, who runs an environmental consulting firm in Myrtle Beach.
Wooten said he doubled the salary of one DHEC employee he hired. “We saw it as an opportunity for us to gain better insight in dealing with regulations,” he said.
Sometimes, the involvement of former DHEC employees in agency permitting cases brings up ethical questions. People who gained expertise at DHEC sometimes seek permits from people they worked with or supervised.
South Carolina’s ethics law allows employees who leave state agencies to immediately seek permits from those agencies, unless it’s a matter in which the person was directly involved. In that case, the employee must wait one year before working on a matter he or she was “directly and substantially” involved with.
“It is a huge problem — one of the most difficult problems that the agency has had to deal with,” said attorney Jimmy Chandler, who has helped citizens groups challenge DHEC permitting decisions for two decades.
STATE’S OWN WATCHDOGS SUGGEST TOUGHER LAWS
The S.C. Legislative Audit Council, the state’s watchdog agency, warned in a February 2007 report that South Carolina needs tougher laws.
“State environmental permitting employees may be tempted to show favoritism toward former co-workers who have recently left state government service,” the council reported.
Among other things, the audit council recommended a one-year waiting period for all interactions.
Last spring, Gov. Mark Sanford questioned former DHEC landfill regulator Braswell’s role in advising landfill companies as a private consultant. Braswell said he is not working on any landfill issue he was involved with while at DHEC. He worked at the agency for 29 years. He ran the solid waste division before retiring and taking a job with Capitol Consultants Inc.
In Beam’s case, his relationship with DHEC’s coastal division also has prompted questions. But Beam said DHEC grants him no favors.
“It’s just the opposite; they make us toe the line more than anybody,” Beam said.
At one point in 1999, Beam wrote letters to the coastal division’s appeals board, praising the division’s staff and criticizing opponents of a salt marsh development project he was involved in at North Myrtle Beach. That prompted then-coastal division director Chris Brooks to warn the appeals board about discussing a case that might come before them. Beam said he only wanted to thank the agency for doing a good job.
During his tenure in the state’s coastal division, Beam’s staff pushed for laws to protect beaches from erosion. In the mid-1990s, Beam urged a South Carolina House committee to uphold a ban on sea walls, which worsen erosion.
Debra Hernandez, once one of the coastal division’s highest-ranking staff members, said she left DHEC three years ago because she was frustrated with the agency, where she worked for 20 years. Hernandez now works mostly for federal agencies and universities as a consultant, rather than for developers seeking permits.
“I didn’t want to go back and take advantage of personal relationships that I had built from working there for 20 years,” Hernandez said. “My professional goal is not about that. It’s much more closely tied to public service.”