Senate grills DHEC nominee Kitzman on first day of confirmation hearings

Eleanor Kitzman

COLUMBIA — A Senate committee grilled the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s nominee on Thursday about a campaign fundraiser she held for her longtime friend Gov. Nikki Haley and whether DHEC improperly offered her the job.

On the first day of her confirmation hearings, Democratic senators asked nominee Eleanor Kitzman about a fundraiser for Haley that she attended in Texas in 2011. They also asked Kitzman if her relationship with the governor contributed to her nomoination.

Kitzman assured senators she would remain independent of any political influence if confirmed.

“I am a Republican,” Kitzman said. “I generally support Republican philosophies and positions and candidates. I do not allow that to affect the way I do my job.”

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins, wanted to know how involved Kitzman was in the Texas fundraiser, particularly whether she had encouraged other donors to attend.

Initially, Kitzman denied influencing anyone else’s attendance, but later backtracked, saying she needed to check to be sure.

“As a manager of something as important as DHEC, would you be concerned if a person had problems remembering a whole lot of things?” Jackson asked.

In the weeks since Haley nominated Kitzman to replace Catherine Templeton as head of DHEC, a sprawling agency that oversees the health care industry and environmental issues, senators have voiced concerns about her qualifications and political connections.

The questioning Thursday lived up to senators’ stated intention to thoroughly scrutinize Haley’s nominees, although Susan Alford, the new head of the troubled Department of Social Services, breezed through the confirmation hearings.

Haley first broached the job with Kitzman in December of last year, Kitzman testified. Soon after, she asked Kitzman if she would be interested in the DHEC position and an interview with the DHEC board was scheduled. Kitzman was soon offered the post.

Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, compared that to the selection of former DHEC director Catherine Templeton, who was chosen from 300 applicants after a four-month search, he said. A DHEC spokeswoman has said the agency did not consider other candidates.

Kitzman repeatedly told senators that she could not speak for DHEC’s search process.

Democratic senators also said they were concerned that Kitzman had made numerous amendments to her background paperwork submitted to the Senate. Kitzman said that her original disclosure form to the Senate committee was “substantially correct” but that she may have interpreted questions too narrowly and later expanded the report.

Kitzman had corrected and amended a Senate questionnaire more than 30 times two days before her confirmation hearing, including a disclosure that she wrote a bad check and that a court filed action against her for unpaid student loans, according to a summary document.

“Out of an abundance of caution I wanted to do that because I have nothing to hide,” Kitzman said.

Kitzman, a one-time lieutenant governor candidate, recently assumed a high-paying interim position at the Department of Health and Environmental Control as she awaited confirmation. She 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.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who wrote a recommendation for her, appointed Kitzman state insurance commissioner, but the Texas Senate refused to confirm her over concerns that she failed to protect consumers, according to a Dallas Morning News report.

Kitzman’s confirmation hearing is scheduled to resume Tuesday.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.