COLUMBIA -- Gov. Mark Sanford effectively removed four commissioners at the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs amid cascading complaints about the way the agency, which is charged with caring for the state's disabled, operates.
John Vaughn of Greenville, Edythe Dove of North Charleston, John Powell of Walhalla, and William Bishop of Leesville were asked to resign from the seven-member board earlier in the week.
The $470 million agency, which cares for 28,000 people with mental retardation and related disabilities, autism, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury, is reeling from a scathing Legislative Audit Council report that recommended 66 changes in the agency.
The department came under sharp criticism recently for slashing funds to operate an autism program for 3-year-olds, when millions of dollars allocated for the program had gone unused or were rerouted to other uses.
An ad hoc Senate panel was assembled six weeks ago to look into the agency, amid complaints DDSN was unresponsive to clients and that it intimidated family members who raised questions about its operations.
Joel Sawyer, spokesman for Sanford, said the governor has wanted changes in the agency since the audit, but Sanford's options for dealing with DDSN are limited.
"It's clear the agency is in need of a new direction," Sawyer said. "In an ideal system, we would have been able to make some administrative changes. ... But we think replacing a majority of the board will impact the agency."
Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, arranged the ad hoc Senate committee. He complimented Sanford for taking action.
"I think he did the right thing," Thomas said. "This sweeps aside everything and cuts to the nitty-gritty. I applaud him for it."
But Thomas said there is more action to be taken. He said DDSN director Stan Butkus needs to be fired, along with his entire administrative staff. The DDSN commission has the authority to replace the executive director.
"DDSN is probably the worst-run agency in the state," Thomas said. And, Thomas said, leadership at other state agencies complain about having to deal with the agency.
Thomas said another hearing on DDSN was planned in a couple of weeks, but for now he will play it by ear. "We're not gonna stop."
Sawyer said Sanford has a list of candidates to fill commission seats.
Gibson, who had served on the commission for only nine months, said the agency's problems go back beyond his tenure. Yet, he said, the governor has responsibility for the agency.
"The audit is valid. The audit has to be given attention. And changes will be made."
What the state said about the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs and spending:
-- DDSN was slow to implement a new program for children with autism, resulting in more than $9 million in state money remaining unused or being used for different purposes. Consequently, the agency failed to recoup millions in federal Medicaid dollars.
-- From 2005 to 2007, it funded the general operations of advocacy groups without an application process an apparent conflict of interest.
-- The agency has not provided adequate public access to its board actions. While some of DDSN's directives are available on the agency's Web site, others are only available on the DDSN extranet, to which consumers and the public have no access.
-- A former employee worked for DDSN at the same time he worked for a firm contracting with DDSN.
-- The (Columbia) State