Ex-top S.C. DOT official gets consulting job with controversial Infrastructure Bank

July 20, 2018

Investigative Reports

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SCDOT

By RICK BRUNDRETT

A former top S.C. DOT official and defendant in several employment lawsuits is now working as a private consultant to the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which has financed large construction projects that critics contend were chosen primarily for political reasons.

Ronald Patton, an ex-Department of Transportation deputy secretary, told The Nerve he began working for STV Inc., a national transportation consulting company with three offices in South Carolina, a month after his June 2017 retirement from DOT. His annual salary when he left was $137,647.

Patton was DOT’s “liaison” to the Infrastructure Bank (STIB). His new consulting position essentially serves the same purpose as his former role, based on his statements to The Nerve and at a STIB board meeting last month, and the current contract between the STIB and STV.

In the last 11 fiscal years, STV Inc., headquartered in New York City and Pennsylvania, and a company it acquired was paid a total of more than $8.8 million by DOT and at least $1.2 million by the STIB, according to state comptroller general records reviewed by The Nerve.

“That just reeks of collusion,” B.K. Jones, who spent 30 years with DOT including the last several years as its director before retiring in 1997, said when contacted by The Nerve about Patton’s consulting job with the STIB. “That is totally unnecessary.”

Jones, who noted he was a “charter member” of the STIB, said the bank when first formed had a 20-year plan of prioritized projects statewide.

“We drew from that list,” Jones said, claiming it was “abandoned” by his successor, Elizabeth Mabry, who retired in 2006 after the state Legislative Audit Council – the Legislature’s investigative arm – contended that DOT had wasted $50 million under her leadership.

The STIB, according to its website, is supposed to “focus greater attention to larger transportation projects, and thereby allow SCDOT to devote resources to other important transportation projects.” But critics say the legislatively controlled STIB historically has chosen projects based more on political considerations than on objective criteria.

Between its formation in 1997 and 2014, the bank approved more than $3 billion for completed and active projects, mostly for new construction or expansion projects in the Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Greenville/Spartanburg areas, according to research by the Coastal Conservation League.

The legislatively controlled STIB, which state records show had just two listed employees as of Jan. 5, has a close working relationship with and receives administrative support from the 4,400-employee DOT. Although it’s a tiny state agency, the STIB has a massive budget: Lawmakers approved nearly $253 million – all of it in “other funds” – for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Two federal lawsuits and a separate state suit filed from 2011 to last year by now-retired DOT biologist Jeffrey West alleged that Patton and other top DOT officials “fostered and promoted” practices that violated state laws and DOT policies, “costing the taxpayers of South Carolina millions of dollars” and “making roadways and bridges unsafe.”

West, who worked at DOT for about 30 years, alleged in his suits that as a result of speaking out, he was “denied opportunities for advancement,” and was “shunned and ignored, berated and isolated.”

The suits were eventually dismissed without any admissions of wrongdoing by Patton and the other defendants, according to court records. Under a 2014 settlement of the federal suits, West was to receive a raise and a DOT vehicle and be allowed to work primarily from home until his retirement last year, plus $25,000 in his attorney’s fees were to be paid by DOT and the state Insurance Reserve Fund, court records show.

That settlement didn’t become public until last year when West again sued Patton and other DOT officials, alleging they violated the agreement.

‘Cooling-off” law followed?

No one has accused Patton, an engineer who joined DOT in 1991 and was named the deputy secretary for “intermodal planning” in 2015 by current agency director Christy Hall, of any wrongdoing in his new consulting position.

State ethics law, though, requires a one-year cooling-off period before public employees can work for companies that are “regulated” by their former agencies, and whose new jobs involve matters that the workers “directly and substantially participated” in their former positions.

The law was meant to discourage government workers from using their taxpayer-funded jobs to land related private-sector positions.

In a written response last week to The Nerve, DOT spokeswoman Lauren Rountree said the department “actively monitors” the state ethics law on the cooling-off period and a related agency rule announced by Hall in 2015 – which came several months after a Nerve story on top DOT staffers jumping to companies paid by DOT – “with regard to former employees and matters in which they were involved with at the agency.”

Rountree said DOT is “not aware of any violations of this policy insofar as Mr. Patton is involved.”

Patton told The Nerve he was DOT’s “liaison” to the STIB for about the last six months of his DOT career, noting he was “just helping them (STIB) looking at (project) prioritization.” He declined further comment on specifics of his current consulting role, referring those questions to John White, the STIB board chairman.

Under STIB’s current contract with STV Inc., the company “shall consult with, advise, and assist” the STIB with the agency’s “review, understanding, and application of SCDOT project prioritization criteria to various types of SCDOT and state transportation projects.”

A 2016 change in state law requires the seven-member STIB board – which includes S.C. Senate president pro tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence – to prioritize construction projects based on specified criteria, and generally get sign-off from the DOT Commission on project loan applications.

At last month’s STIB board meeting, White said Patton served in the DOT “liaison” position for “a number of years and did our state and the Department of Transportation a great service.” He also said another top DOT staffer had assumed Patton’s former “liaison” role.

In Patton’s current consulting position, “we called upon him to come in and look at operations and procedures … that went into effect in 2016,” White said at the June 26 meeting, referring to the changes in state law.

“It’s always good to see my former DOT friends, too, that are here,” Patton said before giving a presentation to the STIB board. During his presentation, he said that project “prioritization” is a “key part” of the application process, and that it “needs to be clear and have criteria that makes sense to people.”

After the presentation, Hall told the board, “Mr. Patton has a wealth of knowledge and has obviously been involving in ranking projects for a long time at the DOT, so bringing his expertise over to the (STIB) to help you all is a good move on your part.”

Unanswered questions

White, a Spartanburg attorney, on July 12 directed The Nerve to submit written questions to him about Patton’s consulting position. The Nerve also provided a similar written list of questions to DOT on the same day.

Among other things, The Nerve asked both agencies for documents pertaining to Patton’s possible or actual employment with STV Inc. Neither White nor DOT officials immediately responded to those questions, so The Nerve on Monday submitted formal records requests to both agencies under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

Patton told The Nerve on Monday that in the spring of 2017 he began “contemplating retirement” from DOT and looking for a job in the private sector, but that he didn’t conduct his job search during DOT work hours. He said his last day with DOT was June 30, 2017.

West, the retired DOT biologist, alleged in a March 2017 state lawsuit that Patton and other top DOT officials violated the 2014 settlement, contending, among other things, that he was excluded from important staff meetings and prevented from accessing records that he needed for his job.

That lawsuit was dismissed last month without any admissions of wrongdoing by the defendants, court records show. West declined comment when contacted recently by The Nerve, referring questions to his Columbia attorney, Lewis Cromer, who also declined comment other than to say that the 2017 case “has been settled.”

Patton said that his “going to work for STV” had “nothing to do with the state bank contract.” Under the latest contract with the STIB, dated April 11 of this year, total payments to STV are capped at $25,000. The term of the contract “shall continue until completion of the Services, as may be modified from time to time,” though an end date was not specified.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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