War of Words: Leventis Targets Ozmint Again

July 8, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveState Sen. Phil Leventis’ war of words against S.C. Department of Corrections Director Jon Ozmint apparently isn’t letting up anytime soon.

Leventis, D-Sumter, authored a proviso (51.29) in the 2010-11 budget that requires the Department of Corrections to submit a report to the S.C. Legislature detailing all department legal costs within the past four fiscal years for “private lawyers to defend actions for wrongful termination or other personnel matters.”

The report will have to be submitted to the Senate Finance Committee, of which Leventis is a member, and the House Ways and Means Committee by Oct. 1.

An S.C. Legislative Audit Council audit of the department, which was released last October, found that the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund had paid out about $1.2 million in settlements and legal expenses for 22 closed employee claims against Corrections between Jan. 1, 2000, and Dec. 31, 2007. In addition, the fund paid $4.4 million in expenses and settlement costs for 745 closed inmate claims during that period.

And the department shelled out another $1.9 million in attorney fees and settlements for other legal claims not covered by the Insurance Reserve Fund from July 1, 2000, to June 30, 2008, according to the Legislative Audit Council report.

In a recent interview, Leventis told The Nerve that he believes Ozmint, a Republican and former chief prosecutor with the State Grand Jury, is still hiding information about the department’s litigation costs – despite the LAC report’s findings.

“I believe there is information that is undisclosed,” said Leventis, 64, a former combat fighter pilot and a senator since 1981. “This is stuff the Legislature has the right and even the responsibility to look at and consider.”

As he has done in the past, Leventis called on Gov. Mark Sanford, who appointed Ozmint as Corrections director in 2003, to fire Ozmint.

“He should have been fired a long time ago because he won’t disclose (information about legal costs),” Leventis said. “This is not a witch trial, but the fact that he won’t disclose is so counter to the governor’s statements on transparency.”

“In my 30 years, he’s the most difficult person to work with and the most secretive,” Leventis added. “I think he’s the worst agency head I’ve ever seen.”

Sanford has no plans to fire Ozmint, Sanford spokesman Ben Fox told The Nerve recently.

“This is the fourth or fifth time Sen. Leventis has made this request, and what’s interesting is that many have said the root of these requests is not any sincere concern over the operations or leadership at the Department of Corrections, but instead a personal grievance given that years ago a close friend of the Senator was fired from the Department,” Fox said in a written response.

“As we’ve said before,” Fox continued, “we support Director Ozmint’s efforts at maintaining safety and order at the Department of Corrections in the midst of declining revenue, dangerous deficits and what we believe to be serious under funding. “

The department is the only state agency that was allowed by the S.C. Budget and Control Board to run a deficit – $29 million – in the 2009-10 fiscal year, which ended June 30.

Leventis said his budget proviso, which passed both chambers and wasn’t among Sanford’s 107 vetoes, was drafted with the help of Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee; and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. Both senators, Leventis contended, are frustrated with Ozmint.

Ozmint oversees about 5,800 employees at 28 prisons that house about 24,000 inmates.

Contacted recently, Ozmint spokesman Josh Gelinas declined to comment on specifics of the budget proviso, but instead provided The Nerve with the agency’s official written response to legislative budget writers on the proviso.

“There are four problems with this proviso, which was authored by Senator Leventis,” the statement reads. “In each of the budget years since we terminated (Leventis’) neighbor and campaign worker for racial discrimination and other misconduct, he has inserted similar provisos aimed solely at this agency.”

Following are the four problems identified in the agency’s response:

  • The information requested by the proviso was provided earlier to the Legislative Audit Council, which “answered as many of these questions as possible” in the audit released last October. (The LAC report looked at, among other things, litigation costs; the ratio of inmates to corrections officers; hiring procedures; and agency guidelines for handling escapes, hostages and weapons.)
  • The department previously has provided “all of its litigation-related information” to Sen. Leventis.
  • “Significant” parts of the information requested by the proviso are “under the control of” the Insurance Reserve Fund, not the department.
  • The proviso makes no exception for pending litigation and would “require the department to violate its fiduciary duty to taxpayers by forcing disclosure of legally protected information.”

“In summary,” the agency’s response reads, “Senator Leventis did not like the fact that the LAC audit found nothing significant during its audit of this agency. By asking SCDC to produce information that does not exist and/or is not under SCDC custody and control, he hopes to use this proviso to show that SCDC refuse to provide information and comply with a legislative mandate.”Athough he would not discuss specifics of the proviso, Gelinas told The Nerve that the department “will comply” with the proviso, noting, “We intend to give any information that we control.”

Leventis told The Nerve that he is “aware of settlements starting in 2004 that have begun to accumulate, and costs are escalating – all because of Mr. Ozmint’s management style.”

“If you’re on the inside circle (of Ozmint’s preferred employees), you can do nothing wrong,” he said. “If you’re on the outside, they’re gonna get you.”

The department has suffered several high-profile legal losses in recent years. For example, a Lexington County jury in 2008 awarded $350,000 to a former associate warden who claimed he was fired for refusing to go along with his bosses’ criticism of a security supervisor after a 2003 prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution.

But the department also has won employee lawsuits. A federal judge, for example, earlier this year threw out lawsuits by two former prison employees who claimed they were forced to perform executions or face demotions.

Leventis told The Nerve that his ongoing criticism of Ozmint is “nothing personal,” though he added, “No, I don’t like Mr. Ozmint, and no, he’s not on my Christmas card list.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.