Top DOT Staffers Jump to Companies Paid by DOT

May 13, 2015

Investigative Reports

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OfficeFor high-level state Department of Transportation engineers or administrators, it’s apparently not difficult to make career jumps to companies that routinely do business with DOT.

The Nerve found 17 such examples over the past dozen years. In each case, the ex-DOT top staffers landed private-sector positions in the Palmetto State.

And the 10 companies – one of which acquired another earlier this year – that employed the former DOT employees collectively have received more than $72 million from DOT since fiscal 2011, according to state comptroller general records reviewed by The Nerve.

Take John Walsh, DOT’s former deputy secretary for engineering, for example. In 2012, he was paid $139,103 annually in his DOT job, state records show; in July 2013, he became director of program management and business development at Columbia-based Civil Engineering Consulting Services (CECS) Inc., according to his online LinkedIn profile.

Since fiscal 2011, which started July 1, 2010, DOT has paid CECS a total of nearly $4.8 million, comptroller general records show. CECS employs at least two other ex-DOT engineers, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

In October 2014, Walsh was hired to oversee South Carolina’s operations for Michael Baker Junior Inc., an engineering unit of Pennsylvania-based Michael Baker International, his LinkedIn profile shows. Since fiscal 2012, The LPA Group, a transportation consulting company that is part of Michael Baker International, has been paid a collective $175,041 by DOT, according to comptroller general records.

In May 2013 – the month before Walsh retired from DOT – the S.C. General Assembly passed a concurrent resolution thanking him for his “more than twenty years of outstanding service,” and wishing him “continued success and happiness in all his future endeavors.”

The Nerve in November 2013 reported that Walsh, while he was with DOT, sent and received several emails relating to an annual golf tournament involving select DOT staffers and consultants, including CECS.

Clem Watson was DOT’s chief engineer for field operations when he left in January 2014 after a 26-year career with agency to become a senior project engineer in the Columbia office of Tennessee-based ICA Engineering Inc., according to his LinkedIn profile and an ICA press release. In 2013, his DOT salary was $121,000, state records show.

Since fiscal 2011, DOT has paid ICA Engineering a total of $5.3 million, according to The Nerve’sreview of state comptroller general records. In January of this year, Nebraska-based HDR Inc. announced it had acquired ICA; state records show DOT has paid HDR Inc. and its engineering unit a total of $16.2 million since fiscal 2011.

The Nerve in July 2013 reported that Paul Townes, DOT’s chief internal auditor, was stripped of his authority to conduct independent investigations of waste and fraud at the massive agency, which has about 4,300 employees and a $1.6 billion annual budget. The story quoted internal reports by Townes that were critical of DOT management’s handling of private-bridge inspections in 2011 at an upscale Aiken residential community, though Watson and Walsh told Townes at the time they believed the inspections were proper.

Efforts this week by The Nerve to reach Watson and Walsh were unsuccessful.

Following are the 10 companies in The Nerve’s review that hired top DOT staffers, with the total amounts paid to the firms by DOT since fiscal 2011, based on comptroller general records:

  • HDR Inc. (including engineering unit):  $16,216,018;
  • Mead & Hunt Inc.:  $10,860,531;
  • Neel-Schaffer Inc.:  $8,572,180;
  • CDM Smith Inc.:  $7,888,926;
  • Stantec Consulting Services: $5,751,359;
  • F&ME Consultants:  $5,368,298;
  • ICA Engineering Inc. (now part of HDR Inc.):  $5,304,418;
  • Civil Engineering Consulting Services Inc.:  $4,799,015;
  • URS Corp.:  $3,852,548; and
  • KCI Technologies Inc:  $3,526,626
  • Total:  $72,139,919

State ethics law (Section 8-13-755 of the S.C. Code of Laws) bans ex-public employees from accepting employment in the “field of former service” for one year after leaving their public jobs if their new position “involves a matter” in which they “directly and substantially participated” while they were in public service; and if the new job is “from a person who is regulated by the agency or department” that formerly employed the worker.

The terms “matter” or “directly and substantially participated” are not defined in the law, creating a large loophole for ex-public workers to immediately take jobs with private employers that do business with their former agencies.

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