So you want to be a DOT Commissioner?

November 2, 2015

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
 By RON AIKEN

Nepotism

Murky selection process tainted by nepotism, politics

Clifton Parker had had just about enough.

A wildly successful businessman in the trucking industry for 30-plus years, Parker was no stranger to tough negotiations.

But the one facing him as a potential member of the powerful Department of Transportation Commission in 2010, however, was something he was entirely unprepared for.

Already having gone through a gubernatorial screening process – no easy thing – to earn Gov. Nikki Haley’s nomination as her lone appointee to the eight-member body, Parker thought he already had the job.

In truth, he was only just at the start of a convoluted political process, one full of back-door negotiations and closed-door politicking that nearly destroyed his desire to serve before he ever attended his first meeting.

“It was a lot more difficult and in-depth than I ever thought,” said Parker, president of Columbia-based G&P Trucking, about the screening process he was put through by the 10-member Joint Transportation Review Committee, the House and the Senate. “I thought being the governor’s appointment it was a done deal. Trust me, it wasn’t.

“I’ll be 60 years old in about 20 days, and at a few points in that process I was asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

People do it because at stake as a DOT commissioner is control of the policies and direction of a massive state agency with nearly 5,000 employees and a $1.6 billion budget. When you’re at the helm of an agency that annually doles out millions of dollars in contracts and can approve or deny projects that can make or break communities and businesses, there’s no question you have power.

Lots of it.

How you get that power, however, is a process of political – and sometimes familial – backscratching.

All in the Family?

There’s no question the position of DOT Commissioner can profit those who hold it and their businesses. Two of the commissioners, John Hardee (Lamar Advertising) and Woodrow “Woody” Willard (Willard Inc., real-estate appraisal) have businesses that have profited and continue to profit directly from lucrative DOT contracts, as The Nerve has reported here and here.

Good work if you can get it.

But how does one, in reality, get it?

The simple answer is that like many political positions it’s not what you know but who you know or, in Hardee’s case, who you’re married to. Hardee is the son-in-law of Senator Hugh Leatherman, who serves on the Joint Transportation Review Committee that screens and selects all applicants for the Commission and, as Senate President Pro Tempore, has two more appointments to that same board.

Though according to Section 57-1-310 (D), “No member of the General Assembly or member of his immediate family shall be elected to the commission,” Hardee is serving because of how the state interprets the specific phrase “immediate family.”

Though other states define the term to include children by “adoption, or marriage” (Missouri Code of State Regulations,19 CSR 15-7.021 (18) (H)) and the South Carolina Ethics Act defines a family member as “an individual who is (a) the spouse, parent, brother, sister, child, mother-in-law, father-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, grandparent, or grandchild; or (b) a member of the individual’s immediate family,” that last phrase is clarified in a way that allows Leatherman and Hardee – whose firm makes millions of dollars selling advertising for the blue Food/Gas/Lodging signs you see at nearly every interstate exit – to skirt the intent of the law.

According to the Ethics Act, ‘Immediate family is further defined as follows: A.) A child residing in a public employee’s household; B.) A spouse of a public employee; C.) An individual claimed by the public employee or other public employee’s spouse as a dependent for income tax purposes.”

A much harder case to justify involved disgraced former Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, whose father, an insurance agent, served on the commission and even as from 2000-2004 and was re-elected in 2004. But rather than being found guilty of nepotism in violation of the state ethics act, what both Robert W. Harrell and Hardee were actually found guilty of by the State Supreme Court was serving more than one term consecutively as commissioner. Hardee had served multiple terms from 1998-2007 and Harrell from 2000-2007 until the ruling following a lawsuit brought by South Carolina Public Interest Foundation ended their terms prematurely.

Connecting the DOTs

DOT commissioners represent the state’s seven congressional districts plus a gubernatorial appointee for a total of eight (Section 57-1-310) members who serve four-year terms.

How individuals actually get nominated to serve is murky because it happens out of public view. When a vacancy arises on the commission, individual names are floated privately between members of that legislative delegation representing the congressional district. Since each district is comprised of several counties and state law says no one county may have a representative for more than one consecutive term, delegations informally decide which county is up next in the commissioner rotation and, according to one legislator familiar with the process, “that county’s delegation is given deference” to choose a nominee.

Among those members is where debates get hot. Typically, names come from some aspect of local or state government (DOT commission chairman Jim Rozier, for instance, served for years on Berkeley County Council as county supervisor) or the business community. Often, those individuals have contributed financially to the campaigns of one or more of the legislative members from their congressional district (Parker acknowledges he gave the maximum $3,500 to Haley’s gubernatorial campaigns).

Sometimes, one name legislators can agree on emerges beforehand. Other times, two or more are eager to try their luck at a vote.

The first step is to submit a Notice of Intent to Apply for a seat on the commission to the Joint Transportation Review Board, which was created in 2007 by Act 214 ad is a board also overtly political (Bobby Harrell also appointed his father to this board after he could no longer serve as a commissioner, and to learn how another Harrell appointee still on the JTRC, Reid Banks, has seen his company earn $76 million in DOT contracts since 2007 click here).

The influential JTRC is made up of 10 members or their designees: the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee (Leatherman); the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Larry Martin (designee Sen. Greg Gregory); the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee Sen. Larry Grooms, (chairman of the JTRC); one member upon recommendation of the Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harvey Peeler (himself); one member upon the recommendation of the Senate Minority Leader Sen. Nikki Setzler (designee Sen. Gerald Malloy); the chairman of the House Ways and Means Rep. Brian White (designee Rep. Bill Whitmire); chairman of the Education and Public Works Committee Rep. Rita Allison; one member appointed by Speaker of the House Rep. Jay Lucas (appointee Rep. Deborah Long); and two members appointed by the Speaker from the state at large (Banks since 2007 and Patterson Smith since 2009).

To be considered for the commission, the JTRC requires the following:

“Applicants must possess certain qualifications in order to stand for election. Applicants will undergo a screening process that includes a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division background check, a credit check, completion of a comprehensive personal data questionnaire, a financial disclosure, and a South Carolina Ethics Commission Statement of Economic Interests form. The process also includes an investigation and a public screening by the ten-member JTRC and its staff. Only individuals that the JTRC finds qualified may stand for election.”

Even for the governor’s choice to run, the process was an ordeal.

“If you have a history of debt or legal problems of any kind, forget it,” Parker says. “Thank God I didn’t have anything.

“Really all I have is that I’m divorced, and I was quite surprised that I had to divulge that, honestly.

“And I had to provide like four or five written references on their letterhead. I mean, I’m 55, and I’m going to my preacher for a reference.

How rigorous applicants are questioned by the JTRC can vary. A candidate with strong legislative support may have a smoother ride than one opposing him. Proving that is nearly impossible, of course, but those familiar with the process say that’s the case.

Once the JTRC qualifies candidates for election, the individual legislative delegations from the congressional district meet either together or by proxy once again to vote “upon written call of a majority of the members” (Section 57-1-325).

This election does not take place in public and happens only “at a time and place to be designated” by members of the delegation. Before this this time a letter between delegates has circulated with support for a top candidate having been won behind closed doors in the weeks leading up to the vote.

It is during this informal stage when arguments for and against individuals are heard and deals and promises are made. Clearly, as in the case of Hardee and Harrell before him, the support of elite legislative leadership tips the scales.

Once elected, the commissioner’s name is submitted to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State then issues an oath of office to the new commissioner as well as a certificate of election, after which the governor issues a commission.

One more thing. Lawmakers are by law supposed to take into consideration “race and gender so as to represent, to the greatest extent possible, all segments of the population of the State.” There are seven white males and one African-American male currently serving.

Reach Aiken at 254-8411. Email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.