COLUMBIA -- The S.C. Employment Security Commission fired back Wednesday at Gov. Mark Sanford's criticism of them, labeling his charges that the agency has been mismanaged as "completely and totally false."
In a hastily arranged news conference, the three elected commissioners -- former state lawmakers Becky Richardson, J. William McLeod, and chairman McKinley Washington -- said they were "insulted" by the governor's low regard for the work the agency does. They claimed Sanford's chief response to the agency during six years in office has been to ignore it.
"We've invited the governor on many, many occasions (to meet with the commission)," Washington said. "He never has sat down with this agency."
Joel Sawyer, Sanford's spokes-man, said staff members met with the ESC each time it has requested a meeting.
"The only request (for a meeting) was an emergency request when they were about out of money," Sawyer said.
Both Washington and McLeod, who has been on the commission since 1988, said Sanford is the only governor not to meet with the agency since Carroll Campbell's administration.
The commissioners have come under heavy fire from Sanford lately, reeling from charges the ESC has been "asleep at the wheel," while unemployment has risen sharply and the employer-paid trust fund used to pay jobless benefits has gone nearly broke.
The commissioners response Wednesday came after Sanford finished a morning round of Columbia television station interviews, in which he complained the commission meets infrequently. In the past, the commissioners recounted, Sanford has disputed the accuracy of unem- ployment figures produced by the agency. He also has demanded more demographic information about the jobless.
"It is not our job to bring economic development to South Carolina," Washington said. "That's the Department of Commerce's job."
The rift between Sanford and the commission has escalated since the agency recently had to ask for a federal loan to meet the state's spiraling unemployment compensation costs.
The latest figures show South Carolina has a 9.5 percent unemployment rate, though individual counties such as Allendale struggles with 19.7 percent unemployment, and Marion County clocks a 19 percent jobless rate.
The commissioners said the cost for unemployment checks in South Carolina spiked to between $17 million and $19 million a week in January from between $7 million and $11 million a week in payouts in November.
"I think this borders on slander," Richardson said of the governor's comments. "I don't think the governor is a gentleman."
Richardson said the governor has no idea how the agency works, and in a statement read during the news conference, the commissioners said Sanford has no idea how unemployment figures are generated.
"We do it no differently than North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, or California," Washington retorted.
Sanford has asked the commissioners for a series of reports by next month, and the Legislature has joined Sanford in calling for an audit of the agency.