Companies that collectively have received more than $47 million from the S.C. Department of Transportation since fiscal 2011 wined and dined DOT commissioners at least 10 times last year – mainly the night before commission meetings, records show.
But Commission Chairman Jim Rozier of Moncks Corner told The Nerve when contacted Monday that although company representatives typically were present at the dinners at Columbia-area restaurants, no DOT business was discussed with commissioners who attended. He said all commissioners were invited to each event, as required under state ethics law, though not all commissioners attended every one.
“It’s just social time,” said Rozier, who has been on the commission since 2012 and was elected chairman in January. “Nobody has ever asked me to do anything before, during or after the dinners.”
Asked why the companies – primarily engineering firms – paid for the get-togethers, Rozier, a former longtime elected supervisor of Berkeley County, replied, “I just think they appreciate the fact we work for nothing – other than the $35 per diem.”
Rozier got a little prickly when asked if meals paid by companies doing business with DOT gave the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“If somebody could buy you for a damn dinner, then you’re a pretty sorry person,” Rozier said.
The DOT pays for commissioners to stay at a selected Columbia-area hotel during meeting weeks, plus provides meal allowances of $6 for breakfast, $7 for lunch and $12 for dinner during official business days, Rozier said, adding, “If someone buys my dinner, I forfeit the $12.”
Rozier didn’t list any of last year’s meals, which are classified as gifts, in his online income-disclosure report filed on March 29 with the State Ethics Commission. But he submitted a paper list to the Ethics Commission on March 30, a copy of which was provided last week to The Nerve by Herb Hayden, the commission’s executive director.
Hayden said the list was the only paper list in Rozier’s file.
That list shows groups of seven to 11 companies, along with a concrete paving association, covered 10 dinners for Rozier – ranging from $42 to $58, mainly, according to Rozier, at Pitas Mediterranean Restaurant in Columbia and Al’s Upstairs Italian Restaurant in West Columbia – from January through December last year. Eight of those dinners were on the night before DOT Commission meetings, The Nerve’s review found.
The companies that covered the meals included Michael Baker International, Civil Engineering Consulting Services Inc., Collins Engineering, Davis & Floyd, Harris and Partners, Infrastructure Corporation of America (ICA), Hussey Gay Bell, Mead & Hunt, Thompson Engineering, Three Oaks Engineering and TranSystems, according to Rozier’s list.
Since fiscal 2011, which started July 1, 2010, DOT has paid eight of those companies a total of at least $47.4 million, including a collective $13.2 million to Davis & Floyd, $10.8 million to Mead & Hunt, and $5.3 million each to Hussey Gay Bell and ICA, state comptroller general records show. When divisions and related companies are included, the total payout grew to more than $68 million, The Nerve’s review found.
Rozier also reported the South Carolina Trucking Association hosted a luncheon while the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce covered multiple meal and hotel costs for a three-day event in October. In addition, he reported the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, which, as The Nerve previously reported, is pushing for a gas tax hike, paid for two meals in April and September.
Asked why he didn’t list any 2014 meals in his online income-disclosure report, which is more readily available to the public, Rozier responded, “The public can do exactly the same thing,” referring to The Nerve’s request to the Ethics Commission for the paper list.
DOT commissioners Ben Davis and Clifton Parker also didn’t list any company- or organization-sponsored meals last year in their latest online income-disclosure reports. Davis told The Nerve he wasn’t on the commission last year; Parker said when contacted Tuesday he didn’t attend those events last year, noting that as president of a Columbia-based trucking firm, “I have a full-time job; time is valuable.”
Online reports filed by Commission Vice-Chairman Mike Wooten as well as by commissioners W.B. Cook, Samuel Glover, John Hardee, and Woodrow “Woody” Willard list various meals they received last year. Trade and other organizations that covered meal costs were identified, though sponsoring companies typically were listed only as “Business Acquaintance,” “Consultant,” or “Consultants to SCDOT,” with referrals to the State Ethics Commission for specifics.
Rozier said there is not enough space in the online reports to list multiple companies that sponsor one meal or event.
Asked if any companies have paid for pre-meeting meals for commissioners so far this year, Rozier replied, “I don’t think we’ve had any dinners this year,” though he quickly clarified, “I don’t know – we might have had a dinner in January.”
Rozier, who noted he’s been in public service for 30 years and runs a business consulting firm, called The Rozier Group, that he says doesn’t do business with DOT, added he didn’t become a DOT commissioner to make money.
“If they paid me a whole bunch of money, I’d turn it down and wouldn’t do it,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is help the state.”
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-04411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.