With no permanent comptroller general after $3.5B error, who’s running the agency?

After a $3.5 billion accounting error that forced the early resignation of South Carolina’s top accountant, state lawmakers still have not yet elected a new comptroller.

With no permanent successor to Richard Eckstrom, an eight-year senior deputy responsible for the state’s payroll and paying vendors is now running the South Carolina Comptroller General’s Office.

Earlier this year, Eckstrom disclosed to lawmakers that for 10 years his office miscounted the amount of money the state had on hand, inflating cash balances by $3.5 billion. An investigation by the Senate Finance Committee found auditors had warned Eckstrom about “ineffective internal controls” within his office. It was an accountant, Katherine Kip who moved from the treasurer’s office to the comptroller, who discovered the issue that led to the decade-long error.

No money was actually missing, and the accounting error only appeared in an annual financial report. It did not affect state spending or budgeting.

In response, the House voted to reduce Eckstrom’s salary from $151,000 to $1, and senators moved to start proceedings to remove him from office. Eckstrom announced his decision to resign before proceedings could start.

Eckstrom, who had been the state’s top accountant since 2003 — he was last reelected in 2022 — left the office effective April 30. In his place, he appointed Ronnie Head, 51, as senior deputy comptroller general to run the agency while it waits for the General Assembly to elect a permanent replacement.

The comptroller general’s office is in charge of running the state payroll, paying vendors, running the state’s accounting system and compiling an annual financial report.

Head oversees state payroll, ensuring bills get paid. He has worked with the comptroller’s office for eight years, and worked prior for the accounting and consulting firm Scott and Company LLC.

“I felt that it’s crucial for someone to be in-charge of the office, someone to be the primary point of contact for whomever my successor will be,” Eckstrom wrote in an email Friday to the agency and obtained by The State.

Ronnie Head is senior deputy comptroller general and is running the South Carolina Comptroller General’s office after the resignation of Richard Eckstrom.

Eckstrom submitted his resignation to lawmakers March 27, giving lawmakers time to elect his replacement.

But the House and Senate have yet to agree on his successor.

Most of the S.C. House is supporting former state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Richland County Republican, who lost his reelection in 2022. Meanwhile, the Senate, which led the investigation into Eckstrom’s error, wants to fill the role with Mike Shealy, a longtime Senate budget director, who now works at the state Department of Administration over statewide leadership and special projects. Shealy has worked for the state for 40 years.

It’s the Legislature’s job to fill the vacancy, done once before when former Treasurer Thomas Ravenel resigned after he was indicted for drug use. Whoever gets the majority of votes in the 170-member — or the most of the 124-member House — General Assembly wins.

The House originally proposed a Wednesday election after former Gov. David Beasley addressed lawmakers. The Senate declined.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee. “There’s not much more than I can say other than that.”

The office of Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, declined to comment.

Senators have insisted that whoever gets the job have at least 10 years of governmental accounting experience or be a certified public accountant. And lawmakers also discussed making the job appointed as part of the governor’s Cabinet.

Finlay, who is a large land owner and runs Columbia-area establishments Doc’s BBQ, Pawley’s Front Porch in Five Points and Millstone at Adams Pond, previously served on the House budget-writing Ways and Means Committee for six years.

If the General Assembly adjourns May 11, the last scheduled legislative day of 2023, without an agreement to take up Eckstrom’s appointment later in the year, the governor could then appoint someone on a temporary basis.

If he were to appoint the next comptroller, Gov. Henry McMaster has said he would want someone with financial background who is not politically connected. He told reporters last week if it fell to him, he might have a hard time finding a person to fill the job on a temporary basis.

“It would be difficult to get someone to leave a job to come do that job just for a few months until the Legislature would come back in next session,” he said.