Governor not saying whether he will reappoint influential senator’s relative to DOT Commission

February 20, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Update: According to a written plea agreement dated 1/22/19, John Hardee agreed to plead guilty to one federal count of evidence tampering. Neither the count specified in the charging document, known as an “information,” nor the plea agreement provided any details about the alleged crime. The charge carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine, though federal prosecutors in the plea agreement recommended a non-prison sentence, noting Hardee’s “age and health condition.”

Update: 2/21/18 – In a prepared statement released this afternoon, Gov. Henry McMaster named John H. Burriss to the DOT Commission seat held by John Hardee, whose four-year term expired Thursday. McMaster in his statement didn’t say why he chose Burriss over Hardee, the son-in-law of state Senate president pro tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and a Lamar Outdoor Advertising executive. Burriss, of Lexington County, is a former state lawmaker and owner/president of the Burriss Corp., a real estate and construction management company, according to McMaster’s statement. McMaster also announced he reappointed Woodrow “Woody” Willard to his commission seat. Legislative delegations representing the nominees’ respective congressional districts will decide whether to confirm them.

Gov. Henry McMaster let a legal deadline pass last week to decide whether to reappoint controversial S.C. Department of Transportation commissioner John Hardee, the son-in-law of powerful state Sen. Hugh Leatherman.

But McMaster reappointed Woodrow “Woody” Willard, the commission’s chairman, to another four-year term, Willard confirmed when contacted Friday by The Nerve.

Under an amended state law that took effect last year, Hardee, who is the commission’s vice-chairman, could retain his seat for another six months even if McMaster makes no decision. Hardee previously served on the commission from 1998 to 2007 before being forced off under a state Supreme Court ruling.

Hardee, of Columbia, regained his seat in 2014 after being nominated by a former legislatively controlled committee that included Leatherman. The Florence County Republican, who is the Senate president pro tempore and Senate Finance Committee chairman, exerts considerable control over transportation spending and projects in South Carolina.

Hardee, an executive with Lamar Outdoor Advertising, a national billboard and outdoor advertising company, came under scrutiny in 2015 when The Nerve reported his ties to South Carolina Logos Inc., a Lamar subsidiary that received a 12-year DOT contract for highway billboard-logo signs statewide – a multimillion-dollar operation.

The Nerve revealed last week that Hardee is a paid consultant with the Outdoor Advertising Association of South Carolina, a lobbying trade group that receives thousands of state tax dollars annually for public service announcements on billboards and signs statewide, though much of the revenue has been used to cover Hardee’s salary, as well as for lobbying expenses and political campaign contributions by the association.

Hardee’s four-year term on the DOT Commission expired Thursday, as did the terms of Willard and Samuel Glover. Willard on Friday told The Nerve that that the Governor’s Office informed him about a week earlier that the governor had reappointed him to another term, though he added under state law, his reappointment must be confirmed by the state legislative delegation representing his congressional district seat.

Willard said he did not know whether McMaster, a Republican, had decided whether to reappoint Hardee or Glover. 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.

Contacted late Friday afternoon, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes told The Nerve that the governor had not yet decided whether to reappoint Hardee.

“We’re going to be making a decision on that soon; we’ll be announcing publicly when we do,” he said.

Asked for more specifics on the announcement, Symmes replied, “I don’t have an exact timeline I can give you right now, but we’ll certainly be making an announcement in the near future.”

Symmes couldn’t say why McMaster let the legal deadline pass for a decision on Hardee, or if the governor had any concerns about Hardee. Symmes also didn’t know whether Glover had been reappointed.

Hardee, whose 2nd Congressional District seat covers all or parts of Richland, Lexington, Orangeburg, Aiken and Barnwell counties, didn’t respond to earlier phone or email messages from The Nerve.

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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