COLUMBIA — The nominee to lead South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control suddenly stepped aside Sunday, days after the short-lived appointment faced tough questions from a Senate panel.
Eleanor Kitzman said in a letter to DHEC Chairman Allen Amsler on Sunday that she would withdraw her name “in light of recent events,” according to a DHEC news release.
“While it is not my nature or history to retreat when confronted with difficulty, I know from recent personal experience how this scenario plays out,” Kitzman wrote. “There are many ways to serve, and I will continue to do so in order to pay forward the amazing gifts that God has bestowed upon me.”
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had written a recommendation for her, had appointed Kitzman state insurance commissioner in 2011. Two years later, the Texas Senate refused to confirm her over concerns that she failed to protect consumers, according to a Dallas Morning News report.
Amsler said in a statement that Kitzman’s withdrawal was “an unfortunate occurrence for DHEC and South Carolina. ... The Board will immediately convene to begin the process of identifying the replacement nominee.”
Kitzman ran in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor in 2010 and has held previous posts in South Carolina government, including under Gov. Nikki Haley and former Gov. Mark Sanford.
She is also a longtime friend and fundraiser for Haley — a subject of frequent questioning in the Senate’s initial confirmation hearing last week. Those hearings were expected to resume this week, and Democrats on the committee had promised more questions about how Kitzman got the job and concerns about a 2011 fundraiser Kitzman attended for the governor in Texas.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said lawmakers also planned to ask about Kitzman’s short, months-long tenure as director of the Budget and Control Board and lack of medical or health expertise. DHEC is a sprawling agency with a wide range of oversight over health and environmental issues.
“It was all the little things that were going to add up to show that but for the fact she was a friend of the governor, she wasn’t qualified,” said Hutto, a member of the Medical Affairs panel tasked with screening Kitzman. “There wasn’t anything about her background that suggested she could do this job.”
DHEC’s search process was criticized from the beginning. Kitzman was the only applicant considered after being recommended by Haley, a DHEC spokeswoman has said. A DHEC spokeswoman did not return requests for comment late Sunday.
Commenting Sunday about Kitzman’s action, Haley said, “Her withdrawal from consideration is a loss to South Carolina, and will be a gain to whatever organization picks her up.”
Ann Timberlake, executive director of the environmental group Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said in a statement that the DHEC board should conduct a “transparent and public search.” Timberlake added: “With the withdrawal of Eleanor Kitzman, the DHEC Board has the opportunity to conduct the sort of thorough search that is necessary for our state’s public health and environmental agency.”
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, a leading voice on environmental issues, said despite some problems raised with Kitzman’s nomination, he was prepared to vote for her. He said he may have changed his mind if new, more troubling information had come to light before the vote.
“Some of (the issues raised) caused me pause, some of them don’t,” Campsen said. “But I give a great deal of deference to the governor. This is the governor’s prerogative. The DHEC board made this call. It’s a pretty high threshold for me not to confirm a nominee.”
Hutto said that DHEC should be focused on finding a qualified nominee. “Let’s find somebody that fits running that agency,” he said.
Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.