Leatherman Looks the Other Way

March 29, 2016

Inside Insight

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University of South Carolina

Legislative leaders can make exceptions for their favorites, but who pays the price when the decision is a disaster? You do.

A detail in Ron Aiken’s story from Monday – titled “Big Blue-U” – arrested our attention.

The piece (and if you haven’t read it, you must) tells the story of how the technology giant IBM won a massive $70 million no-bid contract with the University of South Carolina, in part to “take over a OneCarolina project already millions of dollars over budget and behind schedule.” That was 2014, when the university’s “Innovista” project – where IBM would be housed – had long been an embarrassing flop to the school’s pretentions to lead in “economic development” efforts. Since then, of course, the entire OneCarolina project is a total debacle, with tens of millions of dollars wasted and no one but low-level functionaries held accountable.

In short: a very expensive mess.

Why was the contract no-bid? Because a 3-2 vote on the Budget and Control Board allowed USC to bypass procurement codes. And why on earth would the Board do that? What evidence did it have, other than that university officials were asking for an exemption, that this contract was a sure thing that had no need of a bidding process?

There was no evidence, of course. The deciding vote on the Board, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, simply decided to look the other way. Huh? That’s right: “Leatherman testified that the benefits of the partnership, which was endorsed at the meeting by USC representative Rick Kelly and S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt, were unique enough for him to ‘turn his head’ and support the exemption.”

This is too often the mindset of our State House elite. The law is the law, but a powerful legislative leader can suspend it if he feels inclined, based on no sound rationale.

But the law is written in a way that allows it. Leatherman’s vote was made in the open, and Gov. Nikki Haley and Comptroller Richard Eckstrom voted with him. They decided to “turn their heads” too.

The Budget and Control Board – since renamed the State Fiscal Accountability Authority – is notoriously unaccountable. Its poor decisions aren’t traceable to any one public official. If three members support a decision that ends up wasting millions of public dollars and creates a technical and bureaucratic mess like the one described in Aiken’s story, who can be held accountable?

The governor? She voted for the contract, but she was one of three. The comptroller general? Same. The senator from Florence?

Good luck.