June 12, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

DOT: Turnover at Top Highlights Accountability Report

Road Damage

Instability at the highest levels of DOT characterizes 2014-15

Sent to the governor’s office just two weeks before historic flooding took a crippling toll on South Carolina’s infrastructure, the Department of Transportation’s yearly accountability report shows an agency with upper-echelon leadership facing significant – and unexpected – turnover, questions surrounding funding priorities, and an admission that it is only now updating a 2007 legislative mandate for project prioritization and transparency.

Starting at the top, DOT had a bad 2014-15. Following the DUI arrest and subsequent resignation for former Secretary of Transportation Robert St. Onge in January 2014, deputy director for finance and administration Christy Hall took over in an interim capacity until Gov. Nikki Haley could appoint a replacement.

But even before St. Onge’s resignation created an unwelcome stir, St. Onge had complained publically that his role as secretary, a post the former Army general had served in since 2011, was merely to “manage the decline of the state highway system.”

St. Onge also had been mentioned in a lawsuit filed in 2011 against DOT by agency biologist Jeffrey West in which St. Onge’s qualifications for the post and Haley’s vetting of him (a 10-minute conversation, as The Nerve discovered) were challenged.

Haley’s next appointee, Janet Oakley, resigned just five months later amid public criticism, putting the veteran DOT engineer Hall back in an interim role.

On Thursday, the DOT commission met and vice chairman Mile Wooten said he hopes Hall, who by all measures has handled the flood crisis superbly, will be named secretary permanently.

“I urge our governor and our legislature as soon as they get back into session to get you out of that (acting) role and get you in there permanetly,” Wooten said.

Besides Hall’s elevation – again – several other “key changes in Agency Leadership” have taken place. Hall appointed Ron Patton, who was a named defendant in the aforementioned lawsuit against DOT that alleged the agency’s culture and practices “constituted fraud, waste, and mismanagement, costing the taxpayers of South Carolina millions of dollars; and made roadways and bridges unsafe,” to Deputy Secretary for Intermodal Planning. Patton previously had been Director of Planning and Environmental, the department West’s whistleblowing focused on.

West’s lawsuit was settled out of court last year and he remains employed with the agency. When reached by The Nerve Friday afternoon, West’s attorney Lewis Cromer declined to discuss the specifics of the settlement per the agreement.

In further agency reorganization, Brian Keys was named Deputy Secretary for Finance and Procurement – Hall’s former position – while the engineering department was restructured into two “core areas: Project Delivery and Operations,” with Leland Colvin and Andy Leaphart leading those areas, respectively.

Besides the challenges associated with the significant shakeup in leadership and organization from fiscal year 2013-14 to 2014-15, the report submitted last month to the newly created Department of Administration claims the agency’s largest issue isn’t the roads or bridges it maintains but money.

“The department’s biggest challenge is funding for the preservation of South Carolina’s aging highway system,” the report reads.

After making a case for more revenue, including the argument that “with more alternative and fuel-efficient cars, (gas tax) revenues are expected to decrease over time,” the report notes that $216 million was appropriated by the General Assembly to be spent on state secondary roads by county transportation committees.

An additional $70 million was appropriated for construction of a single interchange on I-26 for the new Volvo plant, and $50 million in state tax revenue from vehicle sales was sent to the State Infrastructure Bank, which as The Nerve has reported is body heavily influenced by lawmakers, including Sen. Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman.

One area the accountability report points out as an accomplishment is in the field of “procurement of professional services.” As The Nerve reported back in May, 17 top DOT staffers have let the agency to join private firms doing business with DOT over a period of 12 years, including former Secretary for Engineering John Walsh, who also was a named defendant in the West lawsuit. He left in 2013

In response to the outcry that followed, the report says “A new policy issued by Acting Secretary Hall adds an additional layer of protection to the statutory provisions of the Ethics Act by precluding any former SCDOT employees from using their qualifications to gain an unfair advantage on a contract for a year after leaving DOT.”

DOT’s entire 10-page accountability report for 2014-15 is available online here.

Reach Aiken via email at ron@thenerve.com or call 803-254-4411. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.

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