DHEC nominee’s confirmation looking less certain as hearings approach

Eleanor Kitzman

COLUMBIA — The nominee to lead one of South Carolina’s most sprawling and powerful agencies appears to be facing a bumpy path to confirmation because of some senators’ concerns about her experience, political connections and lack of other candidates.

Hearings for Department of Health and Environmental Control nominee Eleanor Kitzman had not yet been scheduled as of late last week. But senators said that Kitzman’s close ties with the governor, controversial past and the way she was selected for the position raise red flags — and lawmakers are expecting comprehensive, detailed answers.

Kitzman, a Texas native, has moved between government posts and the insurance industry. She previously served as the director of the Budget and Control Board under Gov. Nikki Haley, raised money for her in Texas and has contributed to her campaign.

Kitzman was also the state’s insurance commissioner under former Gov. Mark Sanford. She left under a cloud in 2007 after lawmakers questioned if she was doing enough to battle a dramatic spike in insurance rates along the coast.

Last week, senators stressed that they would give Kitzman a fair hearing despite what some view as a checkered professional history. What troubles Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, a respected voice on environmental issues, is Kitzman’s lack of medical or environmental experience and the way she was chosen for the job.

“I think it’s very questionable whether she’ll make it through the confirmation process,” Campsen said. “You should have a search process. There may be someone out there better that you’re just not aware of.”

The DHEC Board of Directors, which is appointed by the governor, did not seriously consider other candidates, a DHEC spokeswoman said.

“While several possible candidates were discussed, no applications were requested or submitted,” DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said in a statement. “A copy of Ms. Kitzman’s resume was received and an interview was conducted. The board later determined that Ms. Kitzman, with her strong leadership background, was the right person to continue the Board’s vision for the agency.”

Harris said Haley’s office referred Kitzman for the job.

Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said in an email Friday the governor is standing by her pick as the best candidate for the position, and believes she will ultimately be confirmed.

Kitzman is currently being paid about $74 an hour in a management position created for her while she awaits confirmation. She was not available for comment, Harris said.

The Conservation Voters of South Carolina has the same concern as Campsen — that there wasn’t a search to find the best candidate, said Alan Hancock, CVSC campaign director.

“We are focused on the DHEC board’s hasty, secretive process, at this point, rather than on the nominee,” Hancock said. “We expressed concerns when (previous DHEC director) Catherine Templeton was nominated, especially the lack of experience and credentials in either the health or environmental fields. With the current nominee, there are concerns about her employment history that the Senate should explore.”

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, a member of the Medical Affairs Committee, said members plan to ask Kitzman about her failure to be confirmed as Texas state insurance commissioner after being nominated by former Gov. Rick Perry. In May 2013, the Texas Senate declined to confirm her over concerns that she failed to protect consumers, according to a Dallas Morning News report.

“The whole thing has gone in a very irregular way,” Hutto said. “No qualifications outlined. They didn’t follow a process. They didn’t do a search. They hire her at an inflated salary. She’s the governor’s friend. All of that just raises red flags and she’ll have the opportunity to answer every single one of them, and she might be able to.”

Kitzman has supporters, as well. Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway, said Kitzman was a political scapegoat during Sanford’s administration. He said Kitzman was on the right track with proposed reforms to the insurance industry after homeowners’ insurance skyrocketed after Hurricane Katrina.

Rankin said he believes others in the administration pushed back against Kitzman and the Sanford administration was able to ease tension by pushing Kitzman out.

“He sacked her. That was his politics and not her performance,” Rankin said. “I think she’ll come through (the nomination process).”

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.