Panel picks Bethea to be new S.C. lottery chief

The South Carolina Education Lottery filled its top position Tuesday, naming Bluffton civic leader Paula Harper Bethea as its new state executive director.

Bethea, who had been named interim executive director in July, becomes one of the state's top business executives, managing the lottery's full $1 billion-a-year operation, from marketing and hiring to day-to-day duties.

She replaces Ernie Passailaigue, a former state senator who left South Carolina in July to head up the new state lottery in Arkansas.

Bethea will be paid $226,829 a year in the job, the same salary that was paid to Passailaigue.

"It's humbling for me," Bethea said to a standing ovation at Tuesday's announcement. "I was one of the original commissioners, and to come back like this, with all the trust that's been shown, I don't take it for granted."

Bethea stepped into the games at a crucial point, temporarily leaving an executive position at the McNair law firm to fulfill Passailaigue's duties.

His Arkansas departure ultimately included two other top South Carolina lottery executives, human resources director Ernestine Middleton and marketing director David Barden, whom Passailaigue hired for the Arkansas startup operations.

The South Carolina Lottery Commission had formed a search committee to seek Passailaigue's replacement, and said it would conduct a national search for a new executive director, though that search apparently never took flight.

The commission may be poised to take some criticism for filling the game's top slot with Bethea, rather than someone with hands-on lottery experience, but the commission was resolute in its choice of Bethea, accepting a unanimous recommendation from the search committee, before voting unanimously to offer Bethea the job.

Only lottery commissioner T. Moffatt Burriss, who is out of the country, did not vote.

"This decision seems almost obvious," said commissioner James J. Bailey Jr. "To continue to search without seeking (whether) she would stay on would have been a waste of our time."

Commissioner Edward Keith used a sports analogy to express the sentiment behind his vote.

"You couldn't have done better," Keith said. "This is a home run."

Commissioner Edie Rodgers said Bethea "knows how we operate in South Carolina; we don't have to train someone."

Commission chairman Tim Madden, who also headed the search committee, said the committee sought to create the profile of an ideal candidate for the executive director's job, and realized that Bethea was it.

"She demonstrated her ability to perform the duties and responsibilities of the position of executive director in an exemplary manner during her time as interim executive director," Madden said.

"She has the appropriate vision and commitment to the organization. She carries the respect and enthusiasm of the staff. She has both motivated and stabilized the organization, and she has effectively addressed significant challenges in a short period of time," Madden said.

The commission last month promoted Mary Margaret Hopkins to fill the human resources and internal operations director's job at $122,500 annually, formerly held by Middleton for $143,000 a year.

The commission also split Barden's former responsibilities as marketing director between two internal employees, and Bethea said Tuesday the position may not be filled.