DOT Commissioner Has Long Business Ties with DOT

May 4, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Woodrow “Woody” WillardRep. Derham Cole had high praise for Woodrow “Woody” Willard after he and other state legislators who make up the 4th Congressional District delegation elected Willard to the S.C Department of Transportation Commission.

“He has a very solid resume and background in transportation,” Cole, R-Spartanburg, told the Spartanburg Herald Journal in January 2014. “I think he’ll be a great asset to Spartanburg County and the 4th District.”

What Cole and other lawmakers involved with Willard’s election to the eight-member commission, which sets policy for the 4,300-employee, $1.6 billion agency and approves contracts for road and bridge projects statewide, didn’t publicly mention then was that for years, DOT had paid a firm owned by Willard for real-estate appraisal and consulting work.

State records show Willard Inc. continued to receive payments from DOT up through Jan. 6, 2014 – just three days before a legislatively controlled, 10-member screening panel called the Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC) nominated Willard to the DOT Commission.

The Nerve’s review of vendor payment records with the S.C. Comptroller General’s Office found that from fiscal 2008 through last fiscal year, DOT paid Willard Inc. a total of $125,292. The annual payments ranged from $8,325 to $30,000.

Willard Inc. also received nearly $12,000 during the period from the state Budget and Control Board, records show.

Willard isn’t the only DOT commissioner with business ties to DOT: The Nerve last month revealed that a subsidiary of Lamar Advertising Co., where Commissioner John Hardee works as an executive, has a long-term contract with DOT. Hardee is the son-in-law of Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and a member of the JTRC, which nominated Hardee and Willard.

In an interview Friday with The Nerve, Willard, of Spartanburg, said the JTRC was well aware of his business relationship with DOT when the panel interviewed him last year for the DOT Commission seat.

“I made sure they were aware of that,” Willard said. “Eight or nine of them asked me about that.”

“I told them,” Willard continued, “if chosen, I would suspend that relationship.”

Willard said he primarily did appraisals for DOT for rights-of-way purchases in the Upstate, and also provided consulting services to attorneys representing DOT in property-condemnation cases involving road projects. He said he started doing work for DOT in 1990.

But he said he has not been paid for any appraisal or consulting work by DOT since becoming a DOT commissioner, adding he would consider that to be a conflict of interest if he did so. As for state records showing $4,650 in collective DOT payments to his firm on Jan. 6, 2014 – the week the JTRC nominated him for his commission seat – Willard said that amount was for work completed in 2013, before he applied for the seat.

Willard’s annual income-disclosure report, known as a statement of economic interests, filed in 2014 with the State Ethics Commission, shows that he received a total of $13,767 from DOT in 2013. His most recent report, filed on March 23 of this year, doesn’t list any business income from DOT in 2014; comptroller general records show no payments to his firm this fiscal year, which started July 1.

Asked if he planned to resume his business relationship with DOT after his four-year term on the DOT Commission expires, Willard replied: “I won’t probably for a couple years because there were projects I approved while on the commission. But maybe after a couple years, if there were projects or cases attorneys asked me to help on, then I think it would be appropriate for me to do that.”

State ethics law (Section 8-13-700 of the S.C. Code of Laws) generally prohibits public officials from using their positions to benefit their businesses, though there are no specific limitations on DOT commissioners making money off the transportation agency before joining or after leaving the commission.

Leatherman’s Control

Lawmakers from each of the state’s seven congressional districts select one DOT Commission member from their respective districts; the governor also appoints one member. Under state law (Section 57-1-740), legislators can select only those candidates nominated by the JTRC, chaired by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley and the Senate Transportation Committee chairman.

Leatherman has been a JTRC member since the committee’s creation in 2007. In addition to that membership and his position as Senate president pro tempore, he exerts considerable influence over transportation funding in South Carolina as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, chairman of the Joint Bond Review Committee, and a member of the five-member governing board of the Budget and Control Board (BCB).

Comptroller general records show the BCB paid Willard Inc. a total of $11,775 from fiscal years 2008 through 2010. Willard told The Nerve those payments, as with DOT’s payments, were for “consulting and eminent-domain appraisal work.”

The Nerve last month reported that Leatherman was present at the Jan. 9, 2014, JTRC meeting at which Hardee was nominated. Leatherman recused himself from voting on Hardee, though he participated in a closed committee meeting before the vote on Hardee’s and Willard’s nominations, according to minutes obtained later by The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

Neither Leatherman nor Grooms responded to written requests by The Nerve seeking comment for this story.

Hardee is director of governmental affairs at the Columbia office of Lamar Advertising Co., the parent company of South Carolina Logos Inc., which has a 12-year, statewide contract with DOT for business-logo highway signs. The lucrative contract, the details of which The Nerve revealed last month, requires South Carolina Logos to pay DOT a minimum total of $35.2 million, or 60 percent of gross program revenue – whichever is greater – over the life of the contract, which allows the subsidiary to charge eligible businesses fees for advertising on logo highway signs statewide.

Hardee, who previously served on the DOT Commission from 1998 to 2007, denied he had any conflict of interest when interviewed recently by The Nerve about South Carolina Logos, which shares space in the Columbia office building where Hardee works.

Favored Candidates

Hardee and Willard did not go unchallenged in their respective elections to the DOT Commission, JTRC records show. Chad Ingram of Aiken, a former DOT commissioner and president of Garvin Oil Co., applied for the 2nd Congressional District seat but dropped out before being screened by the JTRC. Ingram did not return several messages from The Nerve for last month’s story.

In Willard’s election, the JTRC nominated both Willard and George William “Will” Gramling of Campobello for the 4th Congressional District seat, but Gramling withdrew before the election by the congressional delegation, leaving Willard as the sole candidate.

Efforts last week by The Nerve to reach Gramling were unsuccessful. Willard told The Nerve he didn’t know why Gramling withdrew from the election, though he added, “I would imagine … business leaders went to him and said, ‘It’s not your time.’”

Willard noted he spent at least a dozen years of service on the Spartanburg Area Transportation Study committee, which, according to its website, is responsible for “planning and programming federal transportation funds to facilitate the safe and efficient movement of people and goods within and through the Spartanburg area while considering regional coordination for regional challenges.”

Asked who encouraged him to run for a commission seat, Willard replied, “These were business people, other individuals who are just community-minded,” adding no state lawmakers approached him about running.

Contacted Friday by The Nerve, Rep. Cole said he was aware at the time of Willard’s election that Willard had “done some appraisal work in the past” for DOT, and that he believed Willard was qualified for the commission seat.

Asked whether Willard should be allowed to resume his business dealings with DOT after leaving the commission, Cole, an attorney who serves on the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, replied: “That’s just speculation. I’m not going to comment on that.”

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