S.C. State transportation center mired in midst of investigation
ORANGEBURG — Kenneth Lewis has a lot of solitude, and a lot of space, in the scaled-back James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center he moved into last week.
James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center timeline
1998: James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center launched as a collection of programs at South Carolina State University.
June 2010: Problems at the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center exposed.
July 2010: The state’s Legislative Audit Council begins investigation of transportation center. Former President George Cooper asks the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct a separate audit of about $10 million in federal money for the transportation center. Despite problems, the university begins construction on the complex’s first building.
April 2011: USDOT releases audit report, but redacts financial information. The Post and Courier appeals the decision.
June 2011: The state Legislative Audit Council releases report citing severe management problems at the transportation center.
JANUARY 2012: First transportation center building opens, but no research activities were under way.
May 2012: An audit on about $391,000 from the state Department of Transportation found financial irregularities, and concluded that S.C. State should be designated a “high risk grantee.”
JanUARY 2013: Kenneth Lewis moves into the building and begins applying for research grants. University officials still have no plan to raise the rest of the money to complete construction.
The building mainly consists of three large bays into which researchers could drive huge vehicles. But no large vehicle research is under way. In one of the bays, the distinguished research scientist points to a vat of discarded cooking oil from the school’s cafeteria that he’s converting to biofuel, part of a research project he’s been working on for years.
A huge chiller plant designed to cool a massive transportation complex sits at one end of the building. But South Carolina State University leaders now have no plan to raise the more than $80 million it would take to complete it. And the plant isn’t connected, so it doesn’t cool the 11,000-square-foot building in which only Lewis and one colleague work.
Not much has changed at the transportation center since a June 2010 Post and Courier report revealed that after more than a decade in the works, no transportation research was underway and the center had lost its federal designation. University leaders also weren’t able to explain how much of $50 million that flowed to the center was spent. About half of the money was for a building complex, and much of it still was available. The other half was for transportation programs.
The newspaper’s report prompted some legislators to call for an investigation by state auditors. A month after the auditors released their June 2011 report, which found severe management problems but no missing money, federal authorities launched their own probe into activities connected to the state’s only public historically black university. Law enforcement officials have not said their investigation was connected to the transportation center, but the leader of a state watchdog group said that is possible.
“The transportation center money is puzzling,” said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause South Carolina. “It seems like a huge void into which the money disappeared.”
Hope Derrick, spokeswoman for U.S. House minority leader Jim Clyburn, said the congressman has no comment on the building that bears his name. Clyburn is a graduate of the university, and brought in much of the federal money for the transportation center.
The first details on the federal probe involving the university that began quietly in 2011 became public earlier this month.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore said it began with a tip, which prompted authorities to wire tap the phone of Jonathan Pinson, who at the time was the chairman of S.C. State University’s Board of Trustees.
Last week, Pinson, 42, of Simpsonville was indicted on charges that he attempted to use his influence at the university to broker a land deal in exchange for a $100,000 Porsche Cayenne. He also was accused of steering a contract to a business associate to promote the school’s 2011 homecoming concert. Pinson and Eric Robinson, 42, of Greer were both charged with attempting to affect interstate commerce by extortion and participating in an alleged kickback scheme in connection with the concert.
Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts of the indictment.
Michael Bartley, 48, the school’s former police chief, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for his role in the land deal, for which the Orangeburg resident would have received an ATV and about $30,000 in cash.
Law enforcement officials have said more indictments and charges are expected in the probe.
Back to the money
More than two years after the newspaper’s report on the transportation center, university leaders and state and federal officials still have not offered a complete explanation of how much of the program money for the center was spent.
Prompted by a call from state Sen. Robert Ford and a bipartisan group of legislators, the state’s Legislative Audit Council reviewed money spent on the building, and about $7 million in federal program money from the U.S. DOT.
After the audit council launched its transportation center investigation in July 2010, former S.C. State President George Cooper asked the U.S. DOT to conduct a separate audit of $10 million for the National Summer Transportation Institute.
That report was completed in April 2011, and The Post and Courier requested a copy under the Freedom of Information Act. The agency released a report but redacted all of the financial information, stating that such records were “deliberative and predecisional.”
The newspaper appealed the decision. Agency representatives said that appeals were considered in the order they were received, and that The Post and Courier’s appeal eventually would be reviewed.
On Wednesday, Denesha James, from the U.S. DOT Federal Highway Administration’s FOIA Office said that the newspaper’s appeal “is next in line in the queue.”
The state DOT also audited $391,000 in grants it had awarded to the center. It released a report in May 2012, which found financial irregularities, and concluded that S.C. State should be designated a “high risk grantee.”
And nobody audited $7.7 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
University officials said they are now reviewing Department of Energy funds and likely will be able to shed more light on them soon.
A tough job
Lewis previously worked at the university as the dean of the College of Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology. But he resigned in 2011, he said, after then-president George Cooper demoted him from dean to a faculty member. Cooper had an often contentious relationship with academic employees at the university. The Faculty Senate in January 2011 voted they had “no confidence” in his leadership.
Lewis returned to the university in November. His job includes bringing in research grants for a variety of activities that might take place in the transportation center. But he is centering his efforts on bringing in money for biofuel research.
He’s in the process of applying for grants from the U.S. Departments of Energy, Defense and Agriculture. And he’s going to try to land money from industry as well.
He knows he’s taken on a tough job. “But I’m very optimistic about it,” he said of his fundraising endeavors. “I know it’s a big job, but I’ve done big things before.”
And after the center has some successes, it will become easier to raise more money, Lewis said. “If we do high-quality work that’s found useful by agencies, the money will come after that.”