DOT Commissioner with Business Ties to Agency: ‘It Has to Look Right’

May 20, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Mike Wooten, the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission’s vice chairman, freely admits his Myrtle Beach firm routinely has worked with DOT.

Interviewed last week by The Nerve, Wooten, founding partner and president of DDC Engineers Inc., said his civil engineering company, which he noted has done engineering work for a “lot of subdivisions, a lot of big shopping centers,” and other high-profile projects, such as the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk, is required to obtain DOT “encroachment” permits for rights-of-way on behalf of his firm’s clients. He reported that activity in his annual income-disclosure report filed March 26 with the State Ethics Commission.

Asked how many DOT permits his company, which was established in 1986, has obtained since he became a commissioner more than two years ago, Wooten told The Nerve: “I haven’t a clue. It may be a dozen; it may be two dozen.”

Given his position as a commissioner, Wooten said although his firm is required to obtain the permits, it avoids any “direct contact” with DOT on related matters that are “beyond Yellow Book standards,” explaining that clients in those situations are asked to hire other firms to handle those issues.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s website defines “Yellow Book” standards as “Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards,” which “provide a framework for conducting high quality audits with competence, integrity, objectivity, and independence.”

“That’s why I’m not using my position (on the DOT Commission) to get favors for clients,” Wooten said. “If there is anything that raises a question on this – a square peg doesn’t fit in those round holes – then we ask our clients to farm it out.”

“It doesn’t just have to be right,” Wooten continued. “It has to look right.”

The Nerve last week asked DOT about the number of encroachment permit applications submitted to the agency but was informed that information would be released only through a formal request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

Wooten is the third member of the eight-member commission that The Nerve has identified as having business ties to the DOT. The commission sets policy for the 4,300-employee, $1.6 billion agency and approves contracts for highway and bridge projects statewide.

Last month, The Nerve revealed that South Carolina Logos Inc., which is part of Lamar Advertising Co. where Commissioner John Hardee of Columbia – son-in-law of Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence – works as an executive, has a lucrative, 12-year contract with DOT that allows the subsidiary to charge businesses fees to advertise on highway business-logo signs statewide. Hardee, who previously served on the commission from 1998 to 2007 before being reappointed last year, denied he had any conflicts of interest in a later interview with The Nerve.

State comptroller general records show that DDC Engineers received payments of $6,000 and $4,154 in fiscal years 2008 and 2010, respectively, from the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, of which Leatherman is a board member. Wooten told The Nerve he couldn’t remember details of those payments.

Last week, The Nerve reported that a real estate appraisal and consulting firm owned by Commissioner Woodrow “Woody” Willard of Spartanburg was paid a total of $125,292 by DOT since fiscal 2008, including payments up through Jan. 6, 2014 – the week a legislatively controlled screening committee nominated Willard for a commission seat. Willard told The Nerve his firm, Willard Inc., has not received any DOT payments for appraisal or consulting work since joining the commission.

State ethics law (Section 8-13-700 of the S.C. Code of Laws) generally bans public officials from using their positions to benefit their businesses or family members’ businesses.

The 10-member Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC), of which Leatherman has been a member since its creation in 2007, nominated Willard and Hardee for their respective commission seats during its January 2014 meeting. Legislators in the state’s seven congressional districts elect one member from their respective districts to the commission; by law, they can elect only those candidates nominated by the JTRC, chaired by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley and the Senate Transportation Committee chairman. The governor also appoints one member to the commission.

JTRC records show the committee at its Dec. 5, 2012, meeting qualified Wooten and three other candidates for the 7th Congressional District seat: Rick Elliott of Little River, Edward Holowacz of Myrtle Beach and Byron Yahnis of Florence.

Wooten told The Nerve he and Elliott, president of Elliott Realty and son of the late state Sen. Dick Elliott, were the only candidates remaining when the legislative delegation met to vote, and that Elliott “fought until two minutes before the vote” before dropping out of the race. Elliott did not return a phone message last week from The Nerve seeking comment.

Wooten said when the JTRC screened him for the commission seat, committee members “immediately” asked him, “What are you going to do to separate your (business) activities?”

“I told them that is what I’m going to do,” Wooten recalled.

Wooten, who pointed out his company has been the “engineer of record” for Horry County for 25 years and has done engineering work for the city of Myrtle Beach for 28 years, said his firm “does a lot of road projects,” though none through DOT.

A short time after his appointment to the DOT Commission, Wooten said bringing an interstate to the Grand Strand area was high on his agenda.

“Obviously, our priority is I-73, but I’m one of now eight commissioners,” he told television station WPDE ABC15 in January 2013. “I think the commission’s priority is trying to figure out how to properly maintain the roads we’ve already got.”

Wooten previously served on the board of directors of state-owned utility Santee Cooper from 1998-2002. He told The Nerve that DDC Engineers did “five or six major projects” for Santee Cooper before he joined the board, but had to “give that up” when he became a board member.

Asked if his firm has done work for Santee Cooper since leaving the board, Wooten replied, “I don’t think that I’ve done maybe two jobs for Santee Cooper since I went off the board.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.