Decision to replace Mike Wooten was made in early May
By ROBERT MEYEROWITZ
More than two months ago, the office of Governor Henry McMaster was lining up a permanent replacement for former state Department of Transportation Commissioner Mike Wooten.
When it did, it was guided solely by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, according to documents obtained through an open-records request.
Wooten served a single, four-year term, representing the Seventh Congressional District, which encompasses Myrtle Beach. His tenure was controversial in some quarters, owing to allegations that he had conflicts of interest — he also runs DDC Engineers, a Myrtle Beach firm that does business with state and local government.
Wooten’s commission expired February 15. The law allowed him to sit on the DOT board for another six months. The governor, meanwhile, had the choice of nominating him for another term or naming someone new, in either case subject to the legislature’s ultimate approval.
On May 4, Myrtle Beach chamber CEO Brad Dean wrote to McMaster chief of staff Trey Walker about Wooten’s seat. That email is one of about 20 documents The Nerve obtained from the governor’s office. It seems to be the earliest document in the seven-month McMaster regime that refers to the DOT commission.
The date is significant because Wooten did not resign for another six weeks, on June 22. The next day, McMaster named Myrtle Beach real estate executive Tony Cox to replace him, as an interim commissioner.
“Recognizing the term of our current SCDOT Commissioner (Mike Wooten) has expired, I’m offering our recommendations on this key appointment,” Dean first wrote to Walker.
Dean’s preference, he said, was for the governor to reappoint Wooten. “We recognize that his outspoken nature may have earned him critics but it’s important to note he served as Chairman of SCDOT during some challenging times.” Wooten, he said, would “be a valuable ally for Governor McMaster during a second term.”
Dean’s next choice, he said in the email to Walker, was Cox, “a lifelong South Carolinian… a licensed Real Estate Broker and General Contractor,” and executive vice president, real estate, of Burroughs & Chapin, the Myrtle Beach-based real estate trust.
Cox, Dean said, “is very familiar with the infrastructure needs of our state.”
There is no record of anyone else being considered, or of Cox being considered as anything other than a permanent appointee for the Seventh Congressional District.
Five days later, on May 9, Cox sent letters of recommendation to Tommy Windsor, the governor’s director of boards and commissions. The letters, from Grand Strand Business Alliance chairman Steve Chapman, North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley, Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes, and South Atlantic Bank CEO Wayne Wicker, were all addressed to Senator Larry Grooms, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. They all said Cox was right for the job.
“Please review and let me know what else we need,” Cox wrote.
“It all looks good!” Windsor answered.
The next day, the legislature overrode McMaster’s gas tax increase veto, also making law, on July 1, a provision that would keep Wooten from being able to conduct routine business through his engineering firm should he remain on the DOT commission.
On May 11, the governor’s press secretary, Bryan Symmes, received an email from The Nerve asking if it was true that McMaster was naming a replacement for Wooten to the DOT commission. Symmes forwarded the email to Windsor, who replied to him, “We have a nominee whose name has not been submitted for confirmation.”
The sequence of events seems to be somewhat at odds with a tussle over the legitimacy of Cox’s appointment, between Grooms and McMaster, reported last week by the Greenville News.
It also suggests that Dean played a decisive role in selecting Cox for the commission.
Asked how the work of the DOT commission overlaps with chamber of commerce interests, Dean said by email this week, “The Grand Strand’s infrastructure has improved largely in recent years but remains insufficient for our needs…
“Interstate 73 is one of our top infrastructure priorities and we are hoping to complete I-73 without state funds. Beyond that, we have several other infrastructure needs, including connectivity throughout the region and additional road capacity in southern Horry County.
“It’s imperative that we have adequate funding and sound leadership at SCDOT. Secretary [Christy] Hall is well-positioned to lead SCDOT to new heights and with the increased funding [from the gas tax increase], it’s our hope that we will soon see significant improvement in the condition of our roads and bridges throughout the state.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have several outstanding leaders represent our region on the SCDOT Commission, most recently Mike Wooten, and we are encouraged by the Governor’s pick to replace Commissioner Wooten.”
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