SEPT. 13, 2013 -- Storm clouds are forming over the state Department of Social Services as a powerful state senator has begun probing its personnel decisions, including the firing of a long-time deputy director and a $3 million contract to an out-of-state consulting team.
S.C. Sen. Brad Hutto (
RD-Orangeburg) confirmed this week he met with the cabinet agency’s former deputy director, Linda S. Martin, who was fired last week after more than three decades of service.
Hutto said he was disturbed by what he thought represented a major loss of institutional knowledge at the agency. GOP Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration has drawn praise and criticism for its overhauling of several state agencies during her tenure in office.
Hutto said he was interested to see if there could be a link between the ongoing departure of seasoned state employees and some of the state’s ongoing problems.
The result this time, according to Hutto, was another ingredient into what he termed Haley’s “alphabet soup of incompetencies.” Haley’s administration has drawn criticism for its cabinet agencies snafus:
- Department of Revenue (DOR): The massive computer hacking scandal last year.
- Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC): The “botched” tuberculosis response this year.
- S.C. State Ports Authority(SCSPA): Haley’s support of dredging efforts in Georgia for the Savannah River.
- Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS): Hundreds of millions of dollars in improper payouts.
Fired, not retired, former official says
In an interview, Martin said she met with current DSS head Lillian Koller last week, the morning after the Labor Day holiday, and was told that Koller wanted to take the agency in a “different direction.”
Martin said she was given the opportunity to retire but declined, saying she wanted to make sure the record reflected what she said actually happened -- that she was being fired.
Koller declined to comment on Martin’s termination, but released an internal memo from Sept. 3, which included thanks for Martin’s time in state government, the announcement of her replacement and the first phase in the department’s transition.
Another long-term DSS official, Frank Oakley, who had overseen the agency’s work in Charleston County, was similarly let go recently after 26-and-a-half years of service. Oakley declined to comment for this story, referring all questions to his lawyer Lewis Cromer, whom he said was “in negotiations in a wrongful termination lawsuit” on his behalf.
An enviable career
Martin has had an enviable public career, working for governors from both parties, dating back to then-Gov. James Edwards and on through to Gov. Nikki Haley.
Along the way, Martin worked many jobs in the agency, starting out as a food stamp caseworker in 1977, winning the Order of the Palmetto in 1998 for her work on state welfare reform legislation, and even speaking at the Brookings Institute earlier this year. Recently, Martin garnered praise for helping to lead the agency’s push for transitioning over 17,000 South Carolinians from welfare roles to the workforce.
Martin retired from DSS under former director Kathleen Hayes (2007-11) but returned to work after one day under the Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive (TERI) program. That program, started years ago to keep seasoned employees on the job, became controversial when the state pension fund lost billions and lawmakers agreed to end TERI by 2018.
Ahead at DSS
Koller wrote in her transition memo that the first step would be to place the Jobs Upfront Mean More Pay program into Martin’s former office. Additionally, the transition would require those to sign up for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, or food stamps, to immediately enroll into a state-run job-seeking program.
Hutto, meanwhile, is digging into the state’s online budget tools, implemented by Haley’s administration for added measures of transparency. He said he was surprised to find that DSS is spending what looks like to be substantial amounts of money for out-of-state contractors.
One of those contracts, inked at $3 million, was between the agency and a Maryland-based vendor to run a project at Winthrop University.
The ongoing, five-year contract appears to charge the university with providing support and training for the agency in meeting its goals related to getting jobs for “needy parents,” as well as support the state’s social services in “preventing out-of-wedlock” pregnancies,” among others.
Hutto said he wondered what these contractors, who could have less personally invested in South Carolina than a citizen, are providing that a state employee couldn’t also provide, perhaps at a costs savings.
A DSS spokesman was not able to get a response to Hutto’s questions by press time and efforts to reach the company and professor for comment were unsuccessful.
When asked if he had heard anything being amiss at DSS, Hutto’s colleague in the Senate, Sen. Thomas Alexander, (R-Walhalla), who chairs the Labor, Commerce, and Industry Committee, said he was not privy to the personnel issues in the agency.
Alexander said that he appreciated the work done by dedicated state employees and that there needed to be a “balance” between privatization, outside vendors and current employees, some on the cusp of retiring.
Alexander said he would be scheduling a preview meeting sometime within the next six weeks so legislators would have a better idea what the agency needs and is doing coming into the coming year.
Crystal ball: Cloudy, with a chance of meatballs. If Hutto’s “revelations” come to nothing, then his concerns could be branded as merely partisan jabbing in the lead-up to a gubernatorial election campaign. His colleague and ally in the Senate, Democrat Vincent Sheheen of Camden, has announced his candidacy for Haley’s office. Or if Hutto’s fears are confirmed, then the state could be on the road to supplanting qualified loyal experienced workers with political appointees more beholden to ideology than to the overall betterment of the state, according to one observer.
Bill Davis is editor of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: email@example.com. Recent news stories include: