Politics & Government

Former Beaufort Memorial CEO breezes through confirmation hearing for DHEC’s top job

DHEC Director resigns

Catherine Heigel steps down after short tenure
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Catherine Heigel steps down after short tenure

A state Senate screening panel confirmed a former S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board member to run the sprawling agency Thursday without asking a single question about how he was picked for the job.

Rick Toomey, a 64-year-old consultant and one-time Beaufort Memorial Hospital administrator, is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate within three weeks. After that, he takes control of DHEC, the state agency that oversees S.C. health and environment issues..

The DHEC board, which took 18 months to choose a new director, raised questions in December when it hired Toomey, a fellow board member. The board had hired a Greenville search firm, Find Great People, to look nationally for candidates to succeed departed director Catherine Heigel.

More than 100 people applied for the post. However, the board then reopened the hiring process and chose Toomey.

The Senate Medical Affairs Committee voted unanimously to approve Toomey without asking how Toomey came to be selected by the DHEC board that he was a member of.

State Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, said he is satisfied with Toomey becoming DHEC director.

“His background, experience and leadership capabilities will serve well in his new capacity,’’ Alexander said after the hearing. “It’s good to do a national search, but ... you have somebody here that has the credentials to do the job.’’

Toomey was appointed to the DHEC board by Gov. Henry McMaster after the Columbia Republican succeeded Nikki Haley as governor. Toomey grew up in Greenville, attended Duke University and the Medical University of South Carolina, and worked as a consultant in North Carolina as well as chief executive at Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

During Thursday’s session, Toomey said he wants to support agency staff and carry out the Legislature’s wishes as DHEC director.

“I do not have any other aspirations but to be the best director for DHEC,’’ Toomey said. “I will enforce the laws as you direct me to.’’

Mark Elam, the chairman of DHEC’s board, said after the vote that Toomey was the best choice for the job.

Some of the candidates the board had looked at wanted more money than South Carolina could pay for a DHEC director, Elam said. In one case, a lawyer who impressed the board was making “hundreds of thousands of dollars,’’ Elam said. Some of the other candidates were from out of state, he said.

“There was an issue about finances,’’ Elam said. But, he added, “I admit. I have a prejudice for people coming from in state.’’

As DHEC director, Toomey will be paid $178,000 a year.

DHEC is one of the state’s largest agencies, with more than 3,000 workers. Its activities touch the lives of virtually every S.C. resident.

DHEC’s responsibilities include issuing birth certificates, licenses for hospital expansions and environmental permits, as well as monitoring air and water quality. The regulatory agency often sparks complaints from environmentalists who say it is too easy on industries and from businesses that say it is too hard on them.

A key question about Toomey is whether his tenure will mirror that of past DHEC directors Earl Hunter and Doug Bryant, state government insiders, or Heigel, an outsider who pushed for more money to pay for enforcement programs during her two-year tenure.

During his confirmation hearing, Toomey was asked by senators about the agency’s role in regulating mega-poultry farms and abortion clinics.

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said he was disappointed by DHEC’s failure to object last year when the Legislature voted to weaken laws regulating chicken farms. Kimpson said DHEC did not speak out against a bill to take away some of its discretion in overseeing poultry farms, often a source of complaints from neighbors because of the odor.

“Last year, DHEC essentially acquiesced to what I call ‘Big Ag,’ ’’ Kimpson said.

Toomey said he is well acquainted with big agriculture, having spent part of his career in eastern North Carolina, where large hog farms have polluted rivers and groundwater. But he said DHEC, as a regulatory agency, is caught between environmental concerns and business interests.

“We want to be able to grow business to continue to have more jobs and employment within the state,’’ Toomey said. “But you have to, at the same time, balance the growth in business with protection of the environment and the natural resources that we have.’’

State Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, said Upstate abortion clinics have violated the law, imploring Toomey to ensure they properly are overseen.

“We will continue to be vigilant and, certainly, will want to work with the community and the public if they have information that will benefit us,’’ Toomey said.

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.