How Leatherman’s Son-in-Law Got on DOT Commission

April 8, 2015

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Road WorkIn announcing its January 2014 meeting, the legislatively controlled Joint Transportation Review Committee had planned to screen two candidates for a seat on the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission.

But records show the 10-member review committee (JTRC) at that meeting qualified only one candidate: John Hardee of Columbia, director of governmental affairs at the Columbia office of Lamar, a national billboard company.

A section of road leading to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport is named after Hardee. He previously served on the DOT Commission from 1998 to 2007 before being forced off following a state Supreme Court ruling.

He also is the son-in-law of arguably the state’s most-powerful lawmaker – Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. Leatherman has been a member of the JTRC since its creation in 2007.

Under state law, no General Assembly member or a member of his immediate family “shall be appointed or elected to the (DOT) commission while the member is serving in the General Assembly,” though the term “immediate family” isn’t defined in that section.

The other candidate, Chad Ingram of Aiken, who served on the DOT Commission in 2013 to fill an unexpired term, was listed on the Jan. 9, 2014, meeting agenda along with Hardee to be screened for a new four-year term representing the 2nd Congressional District, according to a Dec. 4, 2013, online posting of the agenda. The 2nd Congressional District covers all or parts of Aiken, Barnwell, Lexington, Orangeburg and Richland counties.

But Ingram, president of Garvin Oil Co., dropped out before the meeting, state Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, told The Nerve this week.

“I’m just remembering he (Ingram) told me he had a business opportunity, and he wasn’t sure he would have the time to put into it (serving on the DOT Commission),” Young recalled.

Ingram and Hardee didn’t respond to repeated phone messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment. As has been his longstanding practice with The Nerve, Leatherman, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, and also sits on the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board and the state Budget and Control Board, didn’t respond to a written message Tuesday seeking comment.

Neither the chairman of the JTRC  – Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley and the Senate Transportation Committee chairman – nor House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, who was the JTRC’s vice-chairman when Hardee was found qualified last year, responded this week to phone messages from The Nerve.

Contacted this week, two JTRC members – Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, and Rep. Deborah Long, R-Lancaster – told The Nerve they didn’t know why Hardee was the only candidate screened last year for his DOT Commission seat.

“I remember the name, but that’s about all I remember,” Long said.

Under a 2007 law that was intended to reform the DOT, the JTRC was created to determine whether candidates are qualified under established criteria to serve on the DOT Commission, which is made up of one member each from the state’s seven congressional districts and one at-large member appointed by the governor. The commission sets policy for the Department of Transportation, which has a total budget of about $1.6 billion and approximately 4,300 employees.

Under the law (Section 57-1-740 of the S.C. Code of Laws), nominations of the review committee are “binding on the congressional district delegation,” meaning those state lawmakers can elect only a candidate nominated by the committee, though the delegation can reject all nominees.

Contacted this week by The Nerve, state Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken and a member of the 2ndCongressional District’s delegation, said he remembers only Hardee’s name being presented last year to the delegation for election. He said he wasn’t aware that Ingram had also applied for the seat.

“That does raise some questions,” he said.

The 10-member JTRC is split evenly between House and Senate representation. The Senate side automatically includes the chairmen of the Finance, Judiciary and Transportation committees, or their designees; two other members are appointed by the Senate president pro tempore upon the recommendation of the Senate majority and minority leaders.

That means that Leatherman, given his positions as president pro tempore and Finance Committee chairman, can control the majority of the Senate’s JTRC members.

On the House side, the JTRC automatically includes the chairmen of the Ways and Means Committee and Education and Public Works Committee, or their designees; as well as three appointments by the House speaker – one House member and two members from the state at large.

Under state law, candidates for the DOT Commission must possess at least a bachelor’s degree from an approved school as specified by the law and at least five years’ experience in “any combination of the following fields of expertise”:

  • Transportation;
  • Construction;
  • Finance;
  • Law;
  • Environmental issues;
  • Management; or
  • Engineering

In addition, the review committee must give “due consideration” to the:

  • “(A)bility, area of expertise, dedication, compassion, common sense, and integrity” of each candidate, which includes a criminal background check and a test of “basic knowledge related to the Department of Transportation and the commission”; and
  • “(I)mpact that each candidate would have on the racial and gender composition of the commission, and each candidate’s impact on other demographic factors represented on the commission.”

On the General Assembly’s website, the JTRC posts notices of upcoming meetings, as well as press releases announcing qualified candidates for the DOT Commission. But the site doesn’t include minutes of meetings; the state Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to keep written minutes that must include, among other things, a record of any votes taken if requested by a member of that body.

“I think that’s a public body, and I think they have to give notice and keep minutes,” Jay Bender, an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, told The Nerve when contacted Tuesday.

The Nerve is an associate member of the Press Association through its parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council.

Neither David Owens, the JTRC’s chief of staff, nor Kenneth Moffitt, a committee lawyer, responded to written or phone messages from The Nerve seeking copies of the minutes of the January 2014 meeting at which Hardee was found qualified, and a separate candidate qualifications report for that seat. The most-recent candidate qualifications report on the Legislature’s website is from 2010.

JTRC records show that Ingram was the only candidate who applied for and was found qualified in late 2012 to fill an unexpired term for a 2nd Congressional District seat on the DOT Commission.

As for Hardee, who first joined the commission in 1998, he was forced to step down after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that state law required that a commissioner could serve one four-year term, though not a succeeding, consecutive term. The father of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, also was removed from the commission because of the ruling. Under the law, commissioners are “elected to a term of office of four years,” which expires on “February fifteenth of the appropriate year”; another section bans counties from having a resident commissioner serve for “more than one consecutive term.”

Asked if Ingram’s application for the commission seat filled last year would have violated the 2007 ruling, Sen. Young, an attorney, told The Nerve that according to a Senate Transportation Committee lawyer, Ingram would have been “eligible to serve a full term after filling a vacancy.”

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