Closed-Door Campaigning Chooses DOT Commissioners

February 29, 2016

Investigative Reports

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By RON AIKEN

Hardee.Wooten

So-called public elections rubber stamp single name

The Joint Transportation Review Committee did not respond to requests made by The Nerve under the Freedom of Information Act for minutes of meetings, the dates and locations of the official meetings or whether any example existed of there being more than one candidate for legislators to elect once it came time to vote.

Normally, such disclaimers about an agency or individual’s refusal to acknowledge or respond to a media request come at the end of a story. They provide context to the reader for a why a quote or viewpoint a reader might expect is missing.

Rarely, if ever, do they lead a story.

And yet in the case of the Joint Transportation Review Committee that screens the supremely powerful DOT Commissioners and whose chairman, Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, has repeatedly touted the committee and vetting process’s openness, the foot-dragging and repeated refusal to respond to requests tells a different story.

How unresponsive is the JTRC? Neither Grooms nor David Owens, the JTRC chief of staff, would even confirm via phone or email that they had received The Nerve’s FOIA request to begin with.

The real story of DOT commissioner elections, told over and over by senators and representatives contacted by The Nerve, is one in which the public is as absent as the minutes. The Nerve has repeatedly FOIA’d, one where not a single legislator could recall a single instance of there being more than one candidate to “vote” for between the time of the JTRC screenings and the meetings of the congressional delegations where, one House member said, he could not recall in his 15 years more than a handful members of a 20-plus -member groups were actually present in the room.

“By the time the vote comes around, the choice is a foregone conclusion,” a representative who wished not to be identified told The Nerve. “It doesn’t matter how many names come out of the JTRC. Leadership makes it known who the choice is going to be that year, and everyone goes along with it.

“Anyone who is not going to get enough votes knows that before the vote is held and drops out beforehand. I can’t remember a single time when there was more than one candidate or even hearing of a vote with more than one candidate.”

Those arrangements and handshake agreements that occur between legislators for their commissioner of choice do not happen in public but rather in the halls of the Senate and House buildings or off campus at the business offices of legislators. Why? Because after the JTRC confirms a candidate as qualified, he or she is allowed to go out and solicit votes.

“Someone will come into my office and sit down and talk about why they want the job,” the same representative said. “It happens regularly. That’s the process.”

House Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said candidates campaign just as judges do.

“They’ll send out their resumes,” Bingham said. “They’ll want to come meet with you and tell you who they are and try to garner commitments.”

In the time leading up to a vote, however, a choice will be made by the consensus of a delegation, its leadership or both as to who that person will be.

Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, was one of several legislators spoken to for this story who said he could not recall a contested vote because candidates without a chance are told as much.
“I expect most everything is resolved without a contested vote because those who don’t have the votes will drop out before a formal vote,” Massey said.

Since each vote is uncontested, there’s little reason for the 20-plus members of each delegation to show up to a scheduled meeting. And by all accounts they do not.

“Most vote by a proxy,” Bingham said. “They’ll sign a piece of paper with the name of the choice on it. It seems to me there’s only two or three people actually there in the room when we do those, which is because everything’s been settled before that point.”

“In fact, I think with John Hardee, in that instance, no other candidates stayed in the race. We did have an official meeting, I was the chair of the Lexington delegation, so I got the proxies together. It was me and maybe (Sen. Nikki) Setzler (D-Lexington) and (Rep. Chip) Huggins (R-Lexington) and the rest (of the 21 total members) were proxies.

“Those members signed a proxy letter that indicated their vote for the one choice. In our case it was John Hardee.”

One of those who voted for Hardee was Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, an advocate of DOT reform.

“I cannot recall a commission race ever coming down to the formal vote of a delegation,” said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, a member of the Senate since 2009.

Hardee is Sen. Hugh Leatherman’s son-in-law. The firm he works for, Lamar Outdoor Advertising, has millions of dollars in contracts with DOT. Hardee was removed from his position of DOT Commissioner in 2007 when the state Supreme Court ruled against Commissioners serving consecutive terms, as had been the custom in violation of state law.

That same year, the JTRC was created as part of an effort to promote reform in the DOT, but critics allege it has only become a cog in the wheel of secrecy because of the lack of transparency in the campaigning process whereby legislators trade votes and choose commissioners out of the public view.

“Obviously there’s a need for major changes in the way commissioners are selected,” said John Crangle, an attorney and executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause SC. “It’s a decision made by a relatively small group of people behind closed doors, where House or Senate leadership – the Speaker, the Senate president – can wield a lot of influence.

“Legislators tend to follow the leadership in large part and do what they’re told. The process needs to be done in public. The whole insider campaigning process and parking garage hand-shaking, like the judges are forced to do, does not do the public or the candidates any good.”

“It’s bad enough that you have multiple entities already – the DOT and the State Infrastructure Bank – with two separate priority lists and a commissioner system with built-in regional biases where commissioners from Charleston or Myrtle Beach or the Upstate horse trade for projects, but when you select those people out of the public eye, the public is not being served.”

Current DOT Commission chairman Mike Wooten represents the seventh Congressional district. In 2013 he was one of five candidates screened by the JTRC along with Robert L. Castles Jr. of Myrtle Beach; Rick F. Elliott of Little River; Edward F. Holowacz of Myrtle Beach and Byron Yahnis of Florence.

Wooten was elected chair of the DOT commission in January.

The Nerve has reported on conflicts of interest issues with Wooten, who in one case influenced a DOT staffer to intervene against a public entity that owed his firm money. For Bingham, whose own engineering business (American Engineering) also has municipal contracts and does right-of-way work with the DOT like Wooten’s DDC Engineers, such tactics are off limits.

“You have to be professional and follow rules and protocol,” Bingham said. “You go through processes and channels. I don’t make calls.

“You’ll never see a letter or phone call from Kenny to do something (to aid my business). You can’t do that. Well, you can, but you’re going to be in the paper. You’re going to be in the paper.

“But I don’t know. Maybe the DOT Commissioners are different.”

Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411. Email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow Ron on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC. For information on how to sign up for email alerts when stories break, visit the home page.