COLUMBIA — As South Carolina lawmakers considered reauthorizing the state’s land preservation agency this year, they proposed restricting legislators from taking over the department for one year after leaving office.
But in the final version of the bill, the one-year waiting period for the Conservation Bank was removed.
Now, just a few months after the bill passed, an Upstate lawmaker who has supported the agency for years stands to benefit from that last-minute change. State Rep. Mike Pitts, a Laurens Republican who oversaw the agency's budget and headed the House ethics committee, announced Sunday that he is retiring to take over the Conservation Bank.
The bank can’t hire a sitting legislator, but Pitts told The Post and Courier on Monday that he has received a verbal offer, and he has accepted. He submitted his resignation letter to House Speaker Jay Lucas on Monday, effective Jan. 3. Pitts would need to be approved by the state Senate for his new job.
Waiting periods are relatively common policies to guard against the so-called "revolving door" between lawmakers, lobbyists and agency heads. They are designed to ensure that legislators aren't given preferential treatment for powerful appointments.
South Carolina lawmakers, for example, must wait a year after leaving the Statehouse before they can become a lobbyist or a judge, and they must wait four years before they can join the Public Service Commission, which regulates the state's utilities.
The state ethics law requires all outgoing public officials wait one year before taking on new employment involving an issue that they substantially participated in during their time in government. The law does not specify whether it applies to officials going from one state government job to another.
When Pitts was on the House budget committee, he chaired a subcommittee that directly handled funding for the Conservation Bank, which preserves landmarks such as the iconic Angel Oak on Johns Island.
Pitts also is a member of the Agency Head Salary Commission, which will approve how much he can be paid if he wins the job at the Conservation Bank. He said he is resigning from that position, too.
The Conservation Bank's previous director, Marvin Davant, earned $97,000 annually before retiring last year under pressure for his management direction. The bank has faced some criticism from lawmakers, including Pitts, in recent years for its handling of funds and limiting public access to land.
The potential new job could also boost Pitts' retirement pay. If Pitts serves as director for at least three years, his state-funded pension will be set at a percentage of the director's salary, rather than as a percentage of his much lower salary as a part-time lawmaker, $10,400.
Despite his role in the Statehouse, Pitts and some of his colleagues said they saw no conflict of interest in him taking the new job.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, a member of the negotiating team that reached a deal on the Conservation Bank bill this year, suggested the one-year waiting period provision was mostly intended as a "bargaining chip" for the Senate to use as leverage over the House because they knew that Pitts had some interest in the job.
Campsen described Pitts as a "person of great integrity and honesty" and argued that his direct involvement in the Conservation Bank's funding at the Legislature made him more qualified for the job, giving him intimate knowledge of the agency's inner workings and strong relationships in the Statehouse.
"I don't think a person with those qualifications should be summarily ineligible," said Campsen, R-Isle of Palms. "There are plenty of members of the Legislature who I wouldn't support, but you shouldn't be disqualified just because you served in the Legislature."
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, another member of the negotiating team, said the waiting period was not only a negotiating tactic but was good public policy.
But Setzler declined to comment on whether Pitts appointment was proper. The Lexington Democrat said it would be up to Pitts and the Conservation Bank now to determine whether there should be any concern about conflicts in his hiring.
A search committee interviewed potential candidates and came up with three finalists before recommending one candidate to the board, according to Amber Larck, the agency's business manager. That recommendation was approved at the board's November meeting, Larck said, authorizing the board chairman to contact the candidate and offer him or her the job.
The 14-member board includes four members appointed by the House speaker, four by the Senate president pro tem, three by the governor and three other state officials.
Environmental groups also spoke highly of Pitts.
"He has always been a good supporter of the bank," said Mark Robertson, South Carolina director of the Nature Conservancy. "He's definitely a conservationist and he has great appreciation for the outdoors."