South Carolina

Denied top state job amid ethics questions, former SC lawmaker named magistrate instead

Former state Rep. Mike Pitts got a government job after all.

The Laurens Republican, who withdrew his application to become director of the S.C. Conservation Bank amid questions of self-dealing, was named a local magistrate judge on Tuesday by his former colleagues on the Laurens County legislative delegation.

The retired policeman’s appointment was read aloud in the state Senate late Tuesday, surprising some senators who earlier this year opposed his attempt to leap from the Legislature to a $97,000-a-year job leading the state agency that funds land conservation.

“Mike Pitts was a conservative Republican legislator who prided himself on cutting wasteful spending until he wanted a government job,” said one of them, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, on Tuesday. “I just find it infuriating that a guy who was disqualified for one job is safely tucked away in another government job. … This is just amazing to me — political cronyism at its worst. This is what people complain about with government: people getting government jobs because they have friends in high places.”

Local magistrates generally are paid between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, depending on the population of the county and the magistrate’s level of experience.

Records show state senators from Laurens County, led by Republican Danny Verdin, recommended Pitts for the job on June 7.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster officially nominated Pitts for the judgeship on June 17 after the former legislator passed a routine background check. The full Senate confirmed Pitts to the position with no debate Tuesday after reconvening in Columbia for the day to take up McMaster’s budget vetoes.

Verdin was one of Pitts’ strongest supporters during Pitts’ failed confirmation to the Conservation Bank.

After Pitts’ nomination went up in smoke, Verdin complained the process had been “very unfair” to Pitts and that Pitts had “acquitted himself well and refuted the accusation that this was a self-serving move on his part.”

Efforts to reach Pitts and Verdin for comment Tuesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

Pitts’ effort to lead the Conservation Bank fell apart after skeptical Democratic senators dug into his voting record in the House.

In 2017, Pitts sponsored a bill that would have effectively abolished the agency, giving its responsibilities to the Department of Natural Resources. But a year later, as Pitts was in talks to become the agency’s director, his budget committee boosted the agency’s budget by more than $200,000 and added another full-time position to its staff.

Pitts abstained from voting on the Conservation Bank’s budget at the time.

But two months later, Pitts voted to kill a proposal that would have stopped legislators from taking a job with the Conservation Bank within a year after leaving office.

Pitts won re-election to the S.C. House in November 2018 but announced just a month later he was retiring because of a heart attack he suffered in October. That triggered a special election to replace him.

There are few qualifications to become a magistrate judge in South Carolina.

Nominees, picked by local senators, must have at least a four-year degree.

There is no requirement that magistrates have a law degree or have worked in law enforcement, though that experience helps overcome a steep learning curve, former magistrates have told The State.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.