McConnell Seeks End Around on Patriots Point

March 16, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA bill to add three members to the Patriots Point Development Authority board seems, on its face, straightforward enough.

But there is more to S. 783 than simple oversight expansion, according to those in the know.

It involves not only a battle over the use of state property, but also efforts by a powerful legislator, Sen. Glenn McConnell, to exert more influence over Patriots Point, a state agency that is home to the USS Yorktown and the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum.

McConnell, president pro tempore of the Senate, introduced legislation last year that would not only add three individuals to the six-member board, but also take away the chairman’s vote except in the event of a tie. The bill passed the Senate and is now in the House Judiciary Committee.

“The effect of increasing board membership is like Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to pack the Supreme Court in the 1930s,” said Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, who opposes the bill. “You fix it so you have the greater number; you get to pick them, so you can control them.”

McConnell could not be reached for comment on this story.

On the surface, a key issue has been the fight between a group that wants to place a monument on Patriots Point to the 170 signers of the S.C. Ordinance of Secession and those that believe Patriots Point, with its emphasis on World War II and its veterans, is incompatible with a pro-secession tribute.

Earlier this year, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ South Carolina division proposed erecting the memorial, a nearly 12-foot square made of blue Georgia granite, and depicting the document, the names of its signers and two relevant scenes.

Ideally, the SCV would like to have the project completed in time for the 150th anniversary of the secession convention in December.

With the signing of the Ordinance of Secession on Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state of those that eventually formed the Confederate States of America to secede from the United States of America.

Last month, several legislators signed their names to a letter sent to Patriots Point Executive Director Dick Trammell supporting the plan, including McConnell and two black lawmakers, Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, and Rep. Tim Scott, R-Charleston.

“Visitors to the site will be afforded a better understanding of this period of history, important to South Carolina and the nation, as a whole,” the letter reads in part.

But there is concern that such a commemoration could actually drive people away from Patriots Point, which is working feverishly to raise funds to restore its ships and improve its facilities.

Inappropriate

Medal of Honor recipient James Livingston is among those who believe that such a monument should not be erected on Patriots Point.

“I myself am a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but to do something like this is going to be very divisive,” said Livingston, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during the Vietnam War. “There are appropriate places to build such a monument, but Patriots Point isn’t it.”

Rose was blunter: “A monument to secession from the Union is inconsistent with what is at Patriots Point. What secession stood for is the opposite of what the men who flew off the Yorktown stood for. Where does it end? Are we going to put up a monument at Pearl Harbor to say the Japanese pilots were honorable too?”

Rose adds that he fears for the future of Patriots Point if the secession tribute goes forward.

“I could see both the Medal of Honor Museum moving and funding for Patriots Point drying up,” he said. “I just don’t believe the rest of the country would support something that they perceived as supporting secession from the United States. You just don’t put two things so opposite side by side.”

The Patriots Point board has been divided on the issue. The board is scheduled to vote today on whether to allow the SCV to erect the monument, but board Chairman John Hagerty believes the result will be a 3-3 tie and, therefore, not advance.

Currently, members of the Patriot’s Point board are appointed as follows: one upon the joint recommendation of the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the speaker of the House, one upon the joint recommendation of the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the president pro tempore of the Senate, and three to be appointed by the governor, with the latter appointing the chairman.

The mayor of Mount Pleasant, an ex officio member, holds the sixth spot.

Under S. 783, additional members would be appointed as follows: one upon recommendation of the president pro tempore of the Senate, one upon recommendation of the speaker of the House of Representatives and one upon recommendation of the state adjutant general.

Hagerty said he’s not against enlarging the board but would prefer that the expansion be structured so that it includes a member from each of the state’s Congressional districts.

“Patriots Point belongs to the whole state, not just a part of the state,” he said.

Governor Mark Sanford’s office says it has some issues in principle with S. 783.

“I’d say that our administration always has some level of concern when it appears as if direct accountability is being diluted and not strengthened,” spokesman Ben Fox said. “That said, we’d wait until the bill made its way closer to the governor’s desk before coming down definitively on one side or the other.

McConnell Unhappy

McConnell has made no secret of his displeasure with the Patriots Point board. Last year, he said he’d ask the Legislature to approve a reorganization of the board to provide for broader representation and oversight.

He also indicated he would ask for a review of the authority by the Legislative Audit Council to suggest solutions to Patriots Point’s fiscal woes.

That came after the board said it needed more than $60 million for overdue repairs on the museum’s ships and other improvements that would ensure the ships survive and the attraction thrives.

An enterprise agency, Patriots Point gets no direct subsidy from the state. To operate a normal museum, that wouldn’t be such a problem, but the maintenance involved with keeping 60-plus-year-old ships afloat is extremely costly.

Recent repairs made to the destroyer USS Laffey, for example, were funded with a $9.2 million loan from the state.

But there’s also a belief among some that McConnell’s bill is first and foremost an attempt to ensure the Patriots Point board acts in concert with his wishes.

A tipping point appears to have been the departure of Executive Director Hugh Tant last year. On April 19, 2009, Tant resigned, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.

But according to the (Charleston) Post and Courier, days before Tant stepped down, certain board members met and asked for Tant’s resignation.

Later, board member Susan Marlowe asked Hagerty in an e-mail if she and then-Mount Pleasant Mayor Harry Hallman, a voting member of the board, were the only representatives from the six-person group excluded from the discussion.

Marlowe, a proponent of Tant, sent the e-mail to the entire board and blind-copied it to Tant and McConnell, who appointed her to the board.

McConnell, whose office furnished a copy of the correspondence to the Post and Courier, told the paper its contents disturbed him.

“To date we’ve been getting surprises regarding the condition of the ships over there, but now it appears that’s not the only thing leaking,” he said last spring.

S. 783 was introduced on May 5, 2009, barely two weeks after Tant left Patriots Point.

Hagerty and other board members contacted by The Nerve declined to speculate on McConnell’s motives.

Rose, however, had no problem making his views known. “This is all about legislative control,” he said.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or at kevin@scpolicycouncil.com.