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S.C. DOT Pumps Millions into D.C.-Based Nonprofit

Janet Oakley – Gov. Nikki Haley’s choice to lead the S.C. Department of Transportation – can thank the state transportation agency for helping her to stay for years in the high-paying job she plans to leave for the Palmetto state.

Haley on Monday announced Oakley as her nominee to replace former DOT Secretary Robert St. Onge, who suddenly resigned in January after being arrested on a drunken-driving charge.

Oakley, who, according to published reports is a Maryland resident with a vacation house on Edisto Island, is the longtime director of policy and government relations at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO for short, a Washington-D.C.-based nonprofit, transportation organization funded by member states, including South Carolina.

In fiscal 2012, Oakley received $210,929 in base salary and “incentive compensation,” plus another $122,943 in retirement and nontaxable benefits, for a total compensation package of $333,872 – second only to then-AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley’s total compensation package of $427,181, according to the organization’s federal tax return for that year – the most recently available. The organization took in $63 million in total revenue that year.

Since 1994, the S.C. DOT has paid AASHTO more than $10.8 million, according to S.C. comptroller general records reviewed Tuesday by The Nerve.

So far this fiscal year, which started July 1, South Carolina’s transportation agency has paid AASHTO $891,747, an increase of more than $456,000, or 88.6 percent when adjusted for inflation, since fiscal 2010, records show.

Since fiscal 2012, AASHTO has received nearly $139,000 in membership fees from South Carolina, according to S.C. DOT records provided Tuesday to The Nerve.

The Nerve’s review found that of $4.4 million paid by South Carolina to the organization since fiscal 2008, nearly $3.8 million, or about 86 percent, was for “contractual services,” much of it for “data processing services,” comptroller general records show.

More than $36,000 was spent during that period on travel by state transportation officials, including St. Onge, to AASHTO events, according to comptroller general and DOT records.

State transportation officials have projected an additional $29 billion is needed over the next 20 years to maintain the state’s existing roads and bridges.

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, S.C. DOT spokesman Pete Poore pointed out that every state is a member of AASHTO, though he did not provide an immediate answer when asked why the department believes it necessary to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year with the organization.

Federal legislative records reviewed Tuesday by The Nerve show that AASHTO has paid Washington, D.C. lobbying firms in recent years, including last year, to lobby Congress on federal transportation spending issues.

AASHTO spokesman Tony Dorsey told The Nerve on Tuesday that money paid to his organization by South Carolina and other member states is well spent.

“AASHTO creates all of the standards for construction of bridges and infrastructure in general,” Dorsey said, noting that fees paid states to the organization are “far less than what any state would have to put in on its own” for the same services.

Among other services, for example, AASHTO provides computer software applications to “help states manage their projects,” Dorsey said, adding, “It helps them do a better job and a more transparent job of running the DOT.”

The organization also certifies labs used by state transportation agencies to make sure construction materials meet quality and safety standards, he said.

AASHTO, according to its website, “advocates transportation-related policies and provides technical services to support states in their efforts to efficiently and safely move people and goods.”

“We’re not a lobbying organization,” Dorsey said, though he acknowledged his group has used outside firms to lobby on behalf of AASHTO. “We are an advocacy organization, and we educate.”

Dorsey said member state DOT “CEOs” make up AASHTO’s board of directors, which he noted has the authority to select the board president and vice president, and set policy for the organization. St. Onge was listed as a board director in recent federal tax returns for the organization.

Oakley, who, according to published reports, has worked for about 15 years as ASHTO’s director of policy and government relations, would have to be confirmed by the S.C. Senate to become the state’s DOT secretary.

St. Onge’s annual salary was $156,220. Oakley, if confirmed, would be paid the same amount; she plans to retire with her husband to their Edisto Island home in about two years, The State newspaper reported.

The Nerve in February reported that since Haley took office in January 2011, six Cabinet members, including St. Onge – 37 percent of her 16-member Cabinet – have left their posts.

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

General Assembly Lobbying State Agencies

Janet Oakley American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Robert St. Onge Gov. Nikki Haley S.C. Department of Transportation