Robert St. Onge, who abruptly resigned last month as the state Department of Transportation secretary after he was arrested on a drunken driving charge, spent only 10 minutes talking with Gov. Nikki Haley before she selected him in 2011 to lead the $1.5 billion agency, documents obtained byThe Nerve show.
St. Onge, who spent 34 years in the U.S. Army, retiring in 2003 as a major general, said in a Sept. 13, 2013, deposition that although he dealt with military transportation issues as part of his duties as a staff officer and commander, he wasn’t considered a “subject matter expert” in transportation. The deposition, a transcript of which The Nerve reviewed last week, is part of an ongoing federal lawsuit by a DOT employee.
St. Onge also was challenged about his educational background. His resume lists him as receiving a “Bachelor of Science, Engineering” degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, though he said under oath during his deposition that the academy, where he later served as commandant, didn’t offer a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
St. Onge’s deposition raises questions about how well Haley vetted him and other nominees to her 16-member Cabinet. Since Haley took office on Jan. 12, 2011, six Cabinet members – 37 percent of her Cabinet – have left their posts, including:
- Department of Insurance Director David Black, who abruptly quit in December 2011 after 11 months on the job amid questions about how a $1 million federal grant that his agency received was spent to study health insurance exchanges under the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
- Department of Revenue Director Jim Etter, who resigned in December 2012 after the hacking heist of tax data, including Social Security and bank account numbers, belonging to more than 6 million S.C. individual taxpayers, dependents and businesses. The massive security breach has been described as the largest theft of tax records at a state agency in recent U.S. history.
- Department of Employment and Workforce Director Abraham Turner, who resigned last March 1 amid questions over staff pay raises and expensive retreats, and the closing of employment centers in rural counties.
In addition, Catherine Templeton, whom Haley appointed to lead the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, was selected in January 2012 to lead the Department of Health and Environmental Control, a non-Cabinet agency, after Haley appointees took control of the DHEC board. Department of Corrections Director Bill Byars, who suffered a stroke in June 2011 but returned to work, retired last September from his position.
The Nerve last week sent written questions to Haley spokesman Doug Mayer seeking comment about how Haley vetted St. Onge, how she planned to conduct the screening for the next DOT director, and when she planned to name a replacement. Mayer didn’t respond to the written questions or a phone message seeking comment.
The Nerve also left a phone message for Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley and the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, seeking comment on St. Onge’s nomination and departure, but received no response. Cabinet nominees are confirmed by the Senate.
St. Onge did not respond last week to phone messages left on his cell phone and at his Batesburg-Leesville home, or to a written request to a personal email account.
Contacted last week by The Nerve, Jeffrey West, a veteran DOT biologist who filed the lawsuit that includes the St. Onge deposition, declined comment. West’s attorney, Lewis Cromer of Columbia, also declined comment.
West initially filed a state lawsuit in September 2011 in Richland County against three DOT supervisors – Randy Williamson, Ronald Patton and John Walsh. The suit alleges West was denied promotions and was “shunned and ignored, berated and isolated and has not been given meaningful assignments or work for which he is well qualified” after raising concerns for years that certain agency practices “constituted fraud, waste, and mismanagement, costing the taxpayers of South Carolina millions of dollars; and made roadways and bridges unsafe.”
The defendants, who have denied the allegations, had the case transferred in 2012 to U.S. District Court in Columbia. West filed a second federal suit last month, adding St. Onge as a defendant. Both suits are pending.
According to his resume, after St. Onge retired for the military, he worked for about seven years for a Virginia-based defense contractor, L-3 Communications Co., where he retired as president of a linguist operations and technical division in August 2010.
In his deposition, St. Onge said after Haley was elected governor in November 2010, her transition team began looking for candidates for her Cabinet. He said unknown to him at the time, he was recommended for the DOT position by his longtime friend Mick Zais, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and former president of Newberry College who was elected in 2010 as the state superintendent of education.
St. Onge said he was interviewed initially by a Haley search committee, which he thought was headed by Don Leonard, currently the chairman of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board. The Nervehas previously reported that the bank board has funneled several billion dollars over the years for projects that critics contend were based primarily on political considerations.
After two meetings with committee members, St. Onge said he had his first meeting with Haley, which he noted lasted “approximately 10 minutes.” When asked, he said he didn’t know or have any contact with Haley’s husband, Michael Haley, who works for the S.C. National Guard.
St. Onge said he didn’t speak directly with Gov. Haley again until the day she announced that he was her nominee to lead DOT.
“She was inaugurated and then I received a call to please show up at the State House to do a press conference … with her when she made the announcement that I was her nominee,” St. Onge recalled.
“Well, did you not think it was unusual that the governor herself wouldn’t call you and advise you that she’d appointed you?” Cromer, the attorney for West, asked St. Onge during the deposition.
“She did so in person when I came to the press conference,” St. Onge replied.
Cromer then questioned St. Onge about whether Clifton Parker, a Columbia-based trucking company president, was “actually offered the position and turned it down.”
“I have no idea,” St. Onge replied.
Haley in 2011 appointed Parker to the DOT Commission, which governs the agency. Seven of the commission’s eight members are elected by the legislative delegations in each of the state’s transportation districts.
Cromer during the deposition also questioned St. Onge about his background in transportation, pointing out that a 2007 state law (Section 57-1-410 of the S.C. Code of Laws) requires the transportation secretary to “be knowledgeable in the field of transportation.”
“Now, General St. Onge, if what I’ve opined is true, that they were tightening up on the qualifications for this position, and that the governor and the legislators wanted to have a more professional transportation-oriented person, then I want you to tell me, because I don’t see it in your resume,” Cromer said.
“Sir, it’s not my position to second guess the scrutiny done by the governor and her advance team or the Legislature, for whom I interviewed and was confirmed,” St. Onge replied. “I interviewed with every senator in the Senate, and my credentials and my approach was fully vetted by them in my view, and I can’t second guess their decision.”
St. Onge said while in the military, he dealt with transportation issues when he was a staff officer and later a commander, though he acknowledged those issues were “quite different than the mobility and transportation issues affiliated with roads and bridges.”
After stating that while in the military, he wasn’t “the single service member that would be considered the subject matter expert,” Cromer asked, “Wouldn’t you think that the Legislature and the governor wanted at least a subject matter expert to be head of the state Department of Transportation?”
“I am not going to say,” St. Onge started to reply when Vance Bettis, an attorney for the defendants, interrupted, saying, “I object to the form of the question. That’s a legal conclusion.”
As for the “Bachelor of Science, Engineering” entry on his resume, St. Onge said West Point “did not issue degrees in engineering,” though he noted his degree was “very heavily oriented on math, science and engineering.”
After St. Onge’s arrest, Haley appoint Christy Hall, the DOT deputy director for finance and administration, as the agency’s interim secretary. Hall is a licensed professional engineer, according to the agency’s website.
St. Onge holds a master of science degree from Purdue University in Indiana and a master of military art and science degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, according to his resume. His military positions included serving as commanding general of the 24th Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, from 2000-01, and the deputy assistant Secretary of Defense-Reserve Affairs in Washington, D.C., from 2001-03.
His resume describes himself as a “visionary leader who successfully builds, manages, and transforms large, complex organizations,” adding he has “impeccable integrity, superior work ethic, and exceptional people, communication, and negotiation skills.”
St. Onge resigned on Jan. 31, the same day he was arrested about 8 a.m. by the state Highway Patrol on a drunken driving charge after his car was stopped on Interstate 20 near Bush River Road in Lexington County, according to media reports.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.