S.C. DOT Cozy with Consultants, Emails Reveal

November 20, 2013

Investigative Reports

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GolfThe S.C. Department of Transportation is expected to, according to state law, focus on the “systematic planning, construction, maintenance and operation of the state highway system.”

Nowhere in its official mission statement is the mention of a golf tournament. But for the past 18 years, the department – one of the state’s largest with more than 4,400 employees – has organized an annual golf tournament for select staff and DOT consultants – some whose firms have received millions in recent years from the agency, records show.

The “18th Annual Preconstruction Captain’s Choice Golf Tournament” was held on Oct. 21 – a Monday and normal business day for the DOT – at the Mid Carolina Club in Newberry County, according to DOT emails and related records obtained by The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The emails, which start on Sept. 16 with the announcement of the tournament and end on Oct. 22 with an attachment listing tournament scores, reveal a series of conversations primarily between Mitchell Metts, who heads the “preconstruction” section in DOT’s Office of the Deputy Secretary for Engineering, and DOT employees or consultants.

Metts, who makes $113,279 annually, and other DOT staffers who communicated with him about the tournament used their official DOT email accounts during regular business days, the emails show.

Metts sent his initial Sept. 16 email to a group of 104, mainly DOT engineers and other agency employees, including agency head Robert St. Onge, whose annual salary is $156,220. St. Onge’s name was not included in a list of the 35 teams that participated in the tournament; in a written response Tuesday to The Nerve, DOT spokesman Pete Poore said St. Onge, who was appointed in 2011 by Gov. Nikki Haley, did not participate in the event.

Poore said the annual event is “intended for the employees to get together outside of work on their own personal time and have some fun,” adding that each participant “pays the entry fee out of their own pocket and each employee is on approved leave from work in order to participate.”

“State employees have paid annual leave that they can use upon approval of their supervisor,” he said. “All annual leave is paid.”

Poore did not respond to follow-up questions about why the tournament was held on a normal business day, and why employees were allowed to use DOT email accounts on regular business days to communicate about the event.

In an Oct. 22 email, Wendy Nicholas, DOT’s chief of staff, thanked Metts and Gwen Goodwin, a DOT administrative coordinator, for “organizing this and getting everything in place,” adding, “It was a beautiful day and I think everyone enjoyed it!”

The initial announcement sent to DOT employees said the entry-fee checks were to be made out to Metts and could be left with Goodwin, and that those with questions about the tournament could contact Metts at his work number.

Poore in his initial response to The Nerve denied the event was sponsored by DOT, noting that “we named it the Preconstruction Golf Tournament many years ago to promote employees in that division to come out and participate.”

Poore said 140 people participated in this year’s event. At $40 per person, the total cost of the tournament came to $5,600, which covered golfing fees, food and a “small amount of prize money,” he said.

As for the DOT consultants who participated in the event, Poore said they have “participated over the years and have paid the same amount as DOT employees to play.”

And it’s likely the consultants could easily afford the $40 entry fee. The Nerve’s review of online records maintained by the S.C. Comptroller General’s Office found, for example, that the DOT in recent years has made significant payments to the following four consulting companies – all of which have offices in South Carolina – identified in the emails:

  • CDM Smith Inc. – $3.6 million (since 2011-12);
  • F&ME Consultants – $3.57 million (since 2008-09);
  • HDR Engineering Inc. of the Carolinas – $2.78 million (since 2009-10); and
  • Civil Engineering Consulting Services (CECS) – $1.26 million (since 2012-13).

John Walsh, director of program management for CECS and who sent and received several of the emails reviewed by The Nerve, was the DOT deputy secretary for engineering until his retirement from the agency in June. The S.C. General Assembly in May passed a concurrent resolution thanking Walsh for his “more than twenty years of outstanding service,” and wishing him “continued success and happiness in all his future endeavors.”

Walsh did not respond to written and phone messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment on the golf tournament. Efforts by The Nerve to reach other consultants identified in the emails were unsuccessful.

Poore in his response said the tournament did not create any potential conflicts of interest – even with Walsh’s connection to the agency – though he didn’t explain why when asked.

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