Kitzman takes job at DHEC as she awaits Senate confirmation

Eleanor Kitzman

COLUMBIA — The nominee to lead one of South Carolina’s most ungainly bureaucracies will face tough questions during her Senate confirmation process about her controversial past and close ties with Gov. Nikki Haley.

Eleanor Kitzman, a one-time lieutenant governor candidate, recently assumed a high-paying interim position at the Department of Health and Environmental Control as she awaits confirmation as the agency’s director. If confirmed, Kitzman would replace former Director Catherine Templeton, who resigned earlier this month.

Kitzman will “evaluate agency programs, systems and processes and make recommendations to DHEC senior management to improve operations, efficiencies and customer service,” DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said. Kitzman was unavailable for comment Wednesday, Harris said.

Kitzman’s position was created for her, but it’s not uncommon for state agencies to hire new leaders in special roles before official Senate confirmation.

For example, Christian Soura, who was tapped to run the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services in November, was hired by the agency in early September as special assistant to former Director Tony Keck. In that role, Soura earned $128,698. He has been leading the agency as interim director since November, when Keck announced his resignation. The Senate is expected to confirm Soura’s appointment next week.

DHEC’s Board of Directors confirmed hiring her for the temporary, hourly position on Tuesday. She will earn about $74 an hour, based on a 40-hour work week, Harris said.

Until Kitzman’s official Senate confirmation, DHEC attorney Marshall Taylor is officially acting as the agency’s interim director.

DHEC regulates everything from dock permits and restaurant inspections to hospital beds and beach erosion. It is not a Cabinet agency because it’s run by its own Board of Directors, the chairman of which is appointed by the governor. The DHEC director must be approved by both the board and the state Senate.

Kitzman, who has moved between government posts and the insurance industry, has been described as a longtime friend of Haley’s who raised money for her in her home state of Texas. Kitzman donated $2,500 to the governor’s last campaign, records show, and previously served under Haley as the director of the Budget and Control Board.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford had appointed Kitzman as the state’s insurance commissioner in 2005. A year later, Kitzman faced criticism from state lawmakers for her handling of soaring insurance rates for coastal homeowners after Hurricane Katrina. Kitzman left Sanford’s administration in 2007.

“There was apparently some dissatisfaction that a lot of lawmakers were not satisfied or happy with Eleanor Kitzman’s response (to the insurance crisis) and the governor had some meetings with her,” said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who was then Sanford’s chief of staff. “I was instructed to let Ms. Kitzman go.”

The Conservation Voters of South Carolina are circulating an online petition calling on senators to reject Kitzman’s nomination. They say the DHEC board should have conducted a broader search. “We often hear that we should run government like a business,” the CVSC petition says. “A business would have conducted a broad search to bring in a qualified leader.”

In May 2013, the Texas Senate did not confirm Kitzman as that state’s insurance commissioner over concerns that she failed to protect consumers, according to a Dallas Morning News report.

Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat who’s on the Medical Affairs Committee, said having Kitzman start at the agency while there are still questions about her qualifications is troubling.

“When you’ve got a nominee with as many red flags that have been raised and concerns ... it’s a mistake (she’s begun work),” Lourie said.

Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, another committee member, said Kitzman will be facing a tough confirmation — not so much because of her past, but due to a renewed effort by the Senate to scrutinize department heads and Cabinet appointments.

“I’m anxious to hear firsthand from the governor ... about why they think this person is a good nominee,” Fair said.

The Senate has not yet scheduled confirmation hearings.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.