Politics & Government

SC lawmaker accused of maneuvering himself into top state job gives up nomination

SC Rep. Mike Pitts addresses media he proposed to register

Does Pitts, R-Laurens, actually want to register journalists? "Hell no." But he wanted to show media bias toward the Second Amendment.
Up Next
Does Pitts, R-Laurens, actually want to register journalists? "Hell no." But he wanted to show media bias toward the Second Amendment.

A former S.C. lawmaker on Monday withdrew his bid to become the director of the state Conservation Bank, amid controversy over how he was nominated by an agency he once oversaw from the Legislature.

In a letter to the chairman of the agency’s board, former state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, cited his health as he recovers from an October heart attack.

Pitts has come under fire for his controversial voting record in the S.C. House of Representatives — including opposing the removal of the Confederate flag. He also has faced questions about why the Conservation Bank offered him the job instead of better qualified applicants.

A Senate panel reviewing Pitts’ nomination last week asked whether he used his former position — as a lawmaker who oversaw the Conservation Bank’s budget — to maneuver himself into a job at the agency.

“The process of Senate Confirmation has had a profound effect on my cardiac rehabilitation and my health,” Pitts wrote in a Monday letter to Conservation Bank board chairman Doug Harper. Pitts added he was strained by the “aggressive inquisition” at his Feb. 14 confirmation hearing.

“I tired quickly and realized that my cognitive skills have been affected,” he wrote. “Things that should have been very clear I could not remember and things I could remember were sometimes out of sequence. I began to doubt myself for the first time in my life.”

The former lawmaker says “the divisive bitterness” of a Senate vote on the confirmation would negatively impact his health and hurt the agency that oversees land conservation efforts around the state.

“(I)t is with unfathomable regret that I hereby ask that my name be withdrawn from consideration,” Pitts concludes the letter.

Efforts to reach Pitts Monday were unsuccessful.

Last week, a Senate panel voted to advance Pitts’ nomination to the Senate floor, but without a favorable recommendation, a move that signaled his confirmation was in serious jeopardy.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, one of Pitts’ top critics during the confirmation process, thanked the Laurens Republican for “withdrawing his nomination and avoiding a very contentious and divisive debate in the Senate.”

“I wish him the best,” Harpootlian said.

But Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Charleston, who chairs the Senate committee that probed Pitts’ nomination, defended the ex-lawmaker’s nomination.

“South Carolina missed an opportunity to have a good man in that organization,” Campbell said. “They had done a thorough search and and he was their unanimous choice, but I understand because of his health he has to do what’s best for his family.”

Sen. Danny Verdin, a fellow Laurens Republican, said he was “disappointed” Pitts won’t get the job after a process that “was very unfair to him.”

“He met (the committee’s questions) head on, and acquitted himself well and refuted the accusation that this was a self-serving move on his part,” Verdin said.

The committee voiced concerns about how Pitts treated the Conservation Bank as a lawmaker.

In 2017, he sponsored a bill that would have effectively abolished the agency, moving it into the Department of Natural Resources.

But a year later, Pitts’ budget committee bolstered the agency’s budget by more than $200,000 and added a full-time position to its staff.

The Laurens Republican testified that at the time, he was considering applying for the bank’s executive director position after the bank’s director resigned. He abstained from a vote on the Conservation Bank’s budget in March 2018, citing a potential conflict of interest.

But in May, he voted to kill proposed legislation that would have stopped legislators from taking a job with the Conservation Bank for a year after leaving office.

Harpootlian said he plans to re-introduce that provision, blocking any lawmaker from taking a state agency job in the year after they have left office.

Pitts applied for the job in August 2018. However, he has said he only decided to accept the job after he suffered an Oct. 20 heart attack during a hunting trip to Montana. He won re-election to the House in November and resigned his S.C. House seat on Jan. 3.

Job-search records show that several applicants to the job boasted years of experience in land conservation and other environmental fields that Pitts lacked. Conservation Bank board member Mike McShane told senators last week the board approved Pitts, a longtime member of the State House, in hopes of improving the agency’s relationship with the Legislature after the bank was criticized for misspending $3 million in 2017.

Harpootlian said he expects the board will quickly approve another nominee for director.

Reporter Maayan Schechter contributed

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.