Policy Change at DOT after Nerve Story

August 13, 2015

Inside Insight

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SCDOT

MAYBE WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE DEPARMENT OF
TRANSPORTATION IS GOOD FOR THE LEGISLATURE, TOO?

In May, The Nerve’s Rick Brundrett reported on a trend in which top staffers at the state Department of Transportation frequently leave the agency and go directly to a DOT contracting company. The impropriety is obvious. The story included ten companies that hired DOT staffers, and reported the total amounts paid to the companies by the agency since 2011.

It’s perfectly understandable that a company should want a multimillion-dollar contract with DOT, and it’s perfectly understandable that that company should try and secure such contracts by hiring DOT insiders. What’s not understandable is that nobody in state government seemed to care.

Well, until now.

On Tuesday, the agency’s internal auditor, Paul Townes, acknowledged the problem to state lawmakers, and the acting agency head announced a new policy on leaving DOT for contracting firms. From a report in The State:

“The ability to restrict somebody from participating in a project for a year after they leave (the Transportation Department) has always been an issue,” Townes told a subcommittee of the new House Oversight Committee.

In order to combat complaints about the appearance of impropriety and favoritism in awarding roads contracts, the Transportation Department soon will enact a policy change, acting Transportation Secretary Christy Hall told the House panel Tuesday.

The change will bar former Transportation Department employees from working on state contracts awarded to their new employers for one year after leaving the state agency, she said. “What we’re trying to do is to contractually strengthen the existing ethics requirements so that there is a clear line in the sand,” Hall said.

We don’t know what discussions led to the new policy. We do know that The Nerve’s Rick Brundrett was alone in bringing attention to it.

Townes, the internal auditor, also complained that the agency doesn’t let him do his job. That, too, was first reported in The Nerve, a little over two years ago.

While state policymakers are on the topic of favoritism, however, we wish they would take up the topic of John Hardee, the son-in-law of the man who exercises more power over transportation funding than anyone in the state: Sen. Hugh Leatherman. Hardee sits on the DOT Commission and works for the parent company of a firm that maintains ongoing lucrative DOT contracts.” The Nerve broke that story, too.

Another comment in The State’s report caught our eye, too.

Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville, said a one-year ban on former state employees working on new Transportation Department contracts is a step in the right direction.

She added legislators adhere to similar rules that prohibit them from becoming a lobbyist for a year after they leave the Legislature. (However, critics say legislators have skirted that rule, too.)

Count us among the critics mentioned in that last parenthetical comment. Lawmakers frequently become lobbyists before a mere year has elapsed after their departure from office. They accomplish this feat by calling themselves “consultants” for a year, then become fully registered lobbyists.

And that’s not the worst part. Some lawmakers lobby while they’re still lawmakers.

This has been an open secret for a long time within the environs of the State House. Indeed, when Sen. John Courson was Senate Pro Tem – Courson is not a man known to dish out irresponsible rhetoric – he once remarked that he knew some House members were lobbying and wouldn’t be surprised if some senators were lobbying, too.

Will that practice be the subject of a crackdown? We’re keeping an eye on it.