State Politics

Former SC lawmaker won’t get new job until senators probe his House votes

The nomination of a former S.C. legislator to head the state’s Conservation Bank is on hold as a Senate panel looks into his votes related to the agency.

Former Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, also came under intense questioning for his past support of the Confederate flag and role in other controversies.

Pitts testified Thursday he had not voted on issues related to the Conservation Bank as far back as May. Pitts said he recused himself because he was mulling the possibility of becoming the agency’s $115,000-a-year executive director.

Pitts, a former law enforcement officer, resigned his House seat earlier this year to head the Conservation Bank, tasked with protecting land from development. But his nomination to head the state agency must be confirmed by the Senate.

Pitts testified he did not decide to take the job until after he suffered an Oct. 20 heart attack on a Montana hunting trip, after which he decided to leave the Legislature.

But that was two months after the Aug. 29 date on his application to head the Conservation Bank, according to a copy given the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Conservation Bank board records show Pitts was approved as one of four finalists for the job on Oct. 9. The board recommended hiring Pitts on Oct. 30. Pitts waited until Jan. 3 to resign from the House, saying he delayed his departure until after the new year so he could maintain his health coverage and retirement.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, pushed the committee to delay voting on Pitts’ nomination for a week. Harpootlian said he wanted to review House records to see if they support Pitts’ statement that he recused himself on issues related to the Conservation Bank.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been able to get a straight answer from you,” Harpootlian told Pitts, referring to the apparent shifts in the time line of Pitts seeking the post.

After Conservation Bank board member Norman Pulliam testified he told Pitts he should apply for the job, other senators also expressed uneasiness with the process.

“I’m inclined to support Rep. Pitts’ nomination, but I’m not confident in the process,” said Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “It at least creates the impression that it was rigged.”

Pulliam countered he asked Pitts to apply because he was qualified. He added other board members had no prior relationship with Pitts before starting the interview process.

“You would be doing the state a disservice if you did not approve Mr. Pitts,” Pulliam told senators.

State senators also zeroed in on Pitts’ 2015 opposition to removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds after the Charleston church massacre and other controversial stances as a legislator.

Pitts denied he supported keeping the flag in place. Instead, he said he wanted to see a Civil War-era regimental flag — “almost indistinguishable” from the current state flag — flown beside the Confederate Soldiers Monument.

“The national press needed to have a face to demonize, and I became that face,” Pitts said of the controversy.

But Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, pointed to various other amendments that Pitts sponsored during the flag debate. Those amendments would have removed other memorials — commemorating African-Americans and the Spanish-American War — and the statues of Strom Thurmond, a former S.C. governor and U.S. senator, and James F. Byrnes, a former congressman, senator, Supreme Court associate justice and governor.

“There was a chess game going on,” Pitts said, arguing some amendments were offered simply to waste time during the contentious debate. “Did I put up some that were asinine? Probably. But they were time killers. … I didn’t think any of them would pass. “

Harpootlian questioned Pitts on other controversial positions he has taken, including advocating South Carolina mint gold and silver currency to compete with paper dollars.

Pitts said he wanted corporate taxpayers to have the option to pay in precious metals so South Carolina would have a secure reserve in case an economic collapse erased the value of the dollar.

Harpootlian also asked Pitts if he “advocated seceding from the United States” if the federal government moved to confiscate privately owned firearms. Pitts said he supported a measure that would “trigger a vote” on secession in the Legislature if such a move were made. He added he was unsure how he would vote if it came to that.

During a break in the hearing, Pitts said he didn’t think the questions were inappropriate.

“It’s OK. It’s understandable. I want to make sure it all gets out there for the public,” Pitts said.

However, after Harpootlian moved for a delay, Pitts said the process was “starting to seem partisan.”

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.