By RICK BRUNDRETT
Time is fast running out for Gov. Henry McMaster to decide whether to reappoint the son-in-law of Sen. Hugh Leatherman – one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers who exerts tremendous control over transportation spending – to the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission.
Commissioner John Hardee came under scrutiny in 2015 when The Nerve reported about his ties to a company that received a 12-year DOT contract for highway business-logo signs statewide.
More recently, concerns have been raised over how the DOT Commission will spend money generated by a controversial gasoline tax increase enacted last year. Instead of being used to fix crumbling roads, revenues can be diverted, according to an analysis by the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization, to pay down bonds authorized by the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank board, which Leatherman, the Senate president pro tempore, sits on and plays a critical role.
Hardee’s four-year term on the DOT Commission ends next Thursday. McMaster, under a change in state law that took effect last year, has three options:
- Reappoint Hardee, who currently is the commission’s vice-chairman;
- Not reappoint him and choose another nominee; or
- Not do anything, which, under the law, would allow Hardee to remain as a commissioner for up to six months longer, or up until Aug. 15.
The Governor’s Office didn’t return several phone and email messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment on whether McMaster, a Republican, intends to reappoint Hardee.
Besides Hardee’s seat, the four-year terms of two other DOT commissioners – chairman Woodrow ‘Woody’ Willard and Samuel Glover – also expire next Thursday, according to S.C. Secretary of State Office records. In addition, the DOT website lists an at-large seat of the nine-member commission as being vacant.
A DOT spokesman referred The Nerve’s questions about commission reappointments to the Governor’s Office.
Under the new law, the legislative delegations representing congressional districts must approve or reject the governor’s appointments for those commission seats. The commission appoints, with consent of the Senate, the DOT secretary, who is the administrative head of the $2 billion state agency.
Last year, McMaster took no action on whether to reappoint then-commissioner Mike Wooten, who resigned his post in June after retaining his seat for four months after his term expired.
Hardee, of Columbia, represents the 2nd Congressional District, which includes all or parts of Aiken, Barnwell, Lexington, Orangeburg and Richland counties. Under the old law, a legislatively controlled committee that Leatherman, R-Florence, sat on nominated Hardee as the sole candidate in 2014 for a new term on the commission, as The Nerve reported in 2015.
Hardee previously served on the DOT Commission from 1998 to 2007 before being forced off under a state Supreme Court ruling,
Hardee, who has a section of a road leading to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport named after him, is a longtime executive with Lamar Advertising Company, a national billboard and outdoor advertising company that shares a Columbia office with its state subsidiary, known as South Carolina Logos Inc.
South Carolina Logos has a 12-year, statewide contract with DOT for highway business-logo signs – the blue signs displaying the logos of restaurants, gas stations and hotels near exits. The Nerve in 2015 reported that the firm charges businesses to advertise on its highway signs – a multimillion-dollar operation – and pays DOT annual fees totaling at least $2.85 million in the first years of the contract.
Under the contract awarded in 2013, the minimum annual payment owed to DOT would grow to $3 million in the final four years of the agreement, which requires the company to pay the greater of the minimum payment or 60 percent of “gross program revenue,” documents show. A DOT spokesman this week confirmed that the contract is still in effect.
Hardee told The Nerve in 2015 he wasn’t on the DOT Commission when the contract was approved, and wasn’t part of contract negotiations involving the state procurement services office, though he was reinstated to the commission the year after the contract was awarded.
Even if McMaster decides to reappoint Hardee to the commission, there could be legal questions about whether he could remain in his position given his prior years of service. The new law says a commissioner “may not serve more than twelve years, regardless of when the term was served,” though it’s unclear whether that provision applies prospectively or retroactively.
In the meantime, the clock is ticking toward next Thursday’s deadline for McMaster to make a decision.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter.