DOT Commissioner Hardee Breaks Silence; Denies Conflicts of Interest

April 29, 2015

Investigative Reports

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John HardeeOn the evening of Feb. 18, the Outdoor Advertising Association of South Carolina and South Carolina Logos Inc. hosted a reception at Lamar Advertising Co.’s Columbia office on Atlas Road for S.C. Department of Transportation commissioners and their guests, DOT records show.

John Hardee of Columbia, a DOT commissioner and Lamar executive who works at the Atlas Road office, told The Nerve when contacted Monday he was not involved with planning the event and didn’t see any conflict of interest, though South Carolina Logos, which is part of Lamar, has a lucrative contract with the state.

“You need to talk to the president of the (advertising association),” said Hardee, the son-in-law of Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who has considerable control over transportation funding in the state. “I was just a guest.”

“There was no pressure (on DOT commissioners),” Hardee continued, describing the event as “Let’s talk; let’s eat; and we were gone in less than an hour.”

Lamar Advertising is listed as a member of the advertising association on the association’s website. Hardee, Lamar’s director of governmental affairs at its Columbia office, served as president of the association from 1989 to 2003, according to a resolution honoring him that was passed by the Legislature in 2007.

South Carolina Logos Inc. is a subsidiary of Interstate Logos, which is part of Lamar, a national billboard and outdoor advertising company; and shares space with Lamar at its Atlas Road office. Hardee said the subsidiary didn’t co-sponsor the February reception, though a DOT Commission itinerary obtained byThe Nerve this week listed it as such.

Hardee’s comments this week to The Nerve were his first public statements since The Nerve revealed in separate stories this month a legislatively controlled committee that Leatherman sits on nominated Hardee, who previously served on the DOT Commission from 1998 to 2007, as the sole candidate last year for a commission seat; and that for years, South Carolina Logos has held a statewide contract with DOT for highway business-logo signs.

Hardee didn’t respond to The Nerve’s repeated requests for comment on the two earlier stories. In his interview on Monday, he said he wasn’t on the DOT commission when the latest 12-year contract between DOT and South Carolina Logos was approved, and wasn’t part of the contract negotiations involving the Budget and Control Board’s Procurement Services Division.

“I’ve got more sense than to go to one of their (procurement services) meetings,” he said.

Leatherman, as the Senate Finance Committee chairman, is one of five members of the BCB’s governing board, which is chaired by Gov. Nikki Haley. He also has his hand in directing transportation funding as chairman of the Joint Bond Review Committee and a member of the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board.

The Nerve submitted written questions to DOT for the last story on Hardee and this story but received no answers.

The Nerve obtained DOT Commission itineraries this week after submitting a state Freedom of Information Act request to the agency. Those records show that besides the February reception at Lamar’s Columbia office, other special-interest groups hosted events for DOT commissioners from Jan. 1, 2014, through mid-April, including:

  • South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads (SCFOR), which hosted a morning event for commissioners on April 17, 2014, at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Columbia. The Nerve last month reported at least two dozen corporate members of SCFOR, which supports a hike in the state gas tax, collectively have received nearly $364 million from DOT since fiscal 2013.
  • South Carolina Trucking Association, which hosted a morning event for commissioners and staff on Oct. 14, 2014, at the Hilton Columbia Center. The organization is a member of SCFOR.
  • Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, which, according to chamber spokesman Brad Dickerson, hosted a trip Oct. 14-16, 2014, for commissioners at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes, which describes itself on its website as a “premier luxury hotel.” In a written response Tuesday to The Nerve, Dickerson said the chamber hosted the commission for “their regular monthly meeting last October, at a cost of roughly $522 per person,” which he noted included hotel costs. The itinerary indicated that DOT staff and guests also were invited on the trip, which included a tour of the Myrtle Beach Speedway. Dickerson said the proposed I-73 project was among topic discussions during meetings. The chamber is a member of SCFOR, though SCFOR Executive Director Bill Ross earlier told The Nerve his organization has “never supported I-73.”
  •  Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, which hosted an evening reception this month, on April 16, at the Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel in Charleston, which describes itself on its website as a “blend of luxurious accommodations as well as modern conveniences.” The itinerary indicated that commissioners, staff and guests were invited. The chamber is a member of SCFOR; chamber spokeswoman Laura Bright told The Nerve this week that the reception was “just a social event … to emphasize how important infrastructure is to the members in the business community.”

The reception was part of a two-day event in Charleston, which included a bowling outing as well as a commission workshop and meeting at Charleston City Hall. Bright said her organization did not sponsor any activities other than the evening reception. Hardee said he didn’t have a “clue” who paid for the commissioners’ hotel costs while in Charleston.

Hardee said out-of-town trips allow commissioners to “visit different communities and see what their needs are.”

“If you don’t experience it, you don’t realize the importance of it,” he said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.