South Carolina legislators want their own investigators to find out what happened to millions of state and federal dollars used for South Carolina State University's James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center.

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Ouster still a mystery, published 06/17/10Transit center will be audited, published 06/30/10Cooper could be rehired at S.C. State, published 07/01/10

The call by eight members of the General Assembly for the investigation from the state Legislative Audit Council came Thursday, the same day the university's Board of Trustees voted to rehire President George Cooper, whom it fired June 15.

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State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, said he has gathered signatures from six legislators, including his own, and has commitments from two others. The audit council, which functions as the Legislature's investigative body, requires the signatures of at least five legislators before it will move forward with a performance audit of a state agency or program.

Ford said he called for the audit council investigation in response to a June 14 Post and Courier investigation, which found that 12 years after the program was launched, the site sits vacant, no transportation research is under way and the center lost its federal designation.

More than $50 million has flowed to the transportation center since 1998, about half for transportation programs and half for the first phase of a new transportation complex to be named in honor of Clyburn, the U.S. House majority whip and a graduate of S.C. State, South Carolina's only public historically black university.

While the university has on hand most of the $26.3 million for the first phase of the new building, school finance officials have been unable to account for millions of federal dollars for transportation-related programs.

Ford said the bipartisan group of legislators who have called for the audit report did so because they "want South Carolina State University to be the flagship African-American university in the country."

The university's board voted at a retreat this week to conduct an external audit on the transportation center.

The terms of two members of that board expired Wednesday, and two new members joined the board Thursday.

The newly configured board voted 8-5 Thursday to rehire Cooper, even though he scored a 2.56 on a scale of 1 to 5, or roughly the equivalent of a D+, on his performance evaluation.

Ford said the legislators who joined him in calling for the investigation from the Legislative Audit Council were concerned that if Cooper and the new board had control of the audit process, they wouldn't do a thorough review.

He added that he would have called for the state investigation even if Cooper hadn't been rehired.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, who signed the request for the state audit, said, "I'm not sure the audit the university is going to do isn't the fox guarding the henhouse."

State Reps. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston; Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston; Anne Peterson Hutto, D-Charleston; and Mike Sottile, R-Isle of Palms, also have signed the state audit request, Ford said.

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, also have committed to signing the document, Ford said.

"If ever there was a situation in higher education that required legislative inquiry, this is it and then some," said Limehouse, who drafts the first version of the higher education budget for the state Legislature.

Gilliard said he's bothered that Cooper "brushed off" concerns about where millions of dollars for transportation programs went, instead saying he would simply focus on the future. "It falls on our shoulders as legislators to make someone accountable," Gilliard said.

While Ford and the other legislators are concerned about Cooper's leadership, his supporters showed up at a university board meeting on the Orangeburg campus to cheer him on and give him a standing ovation.

"It's a great day for me," Cooper said after being rehired. He also said he will work to improve the S.C. State experience for students, raise money for the university and open lines of communication that will improve work between the board and the administration.

Board members also voted 8-5 Thursday to expunge Cooper's firing from the board's minutes, and to rescind the election of Merl Code, a Greenville lawyer and municipal judge, as interim president.

The majority of the board also voted to rescind a previous election of board officers who would have stepped into their new roles in September.

Walt Tobin, who would have become board chairman, and Martha Scott Smith, who would have become the board's vice chairman, both voted against rehiring Cooper. Jonathan Pinson was then re-elected chairman and John Corbitt was elected vice chairman. Both of them had voted to rehire Cooper.

Robert Nance, a trustee and the district director of Clyburn's South Carolina staff, will remain the board's secretary.

In Nance's individual evaluation of Cooper, he gave Cooper a score of "1" or "2" on a 1-to-5 scale on 12 of 15 aspects of performance. And in one of the comments he added to the form he stated that Cooper "is not presidential and does not represent the university well in public."

Despite the poor evaluation, Nance said he voted to rehire Cooper because doing so would bring stability to the university, and that is what the school most needs right now.