Lawmakers say reforms will crackdown on SCDOT corruption

SCDOT bridge inspector Chris Gossett uses a snooper truck bucket to get up close to one of the supports that needed a photographic record on the Mark Clark Expressway over Daniel Island for “It’s a Living.”

COLUMBIA — State lawmakers said recent corruption charges leveled against former S.C. Department of Transportation employees by the state grand jury underscore the need for even more reform.

S.C. Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said a provision in the state budget will fund a thorough study of the agency’s departments, structure, regional offices, outsourcing and money spent by local county transportation committees.

That study was approved weeks before indictments surfaced Thursday that three former SCDOT employees and one contractor in the Midlands bilked the agency out of more than $400,000 over several years.

Setzler said the DOT reforms passed this year were not enough to catch such activities.

“Everybody was focused on restructuring the SCDOT Commission and that wasn’t in and of itself enough; we need to do this as well,” Setzler said about a deeper look into the agency. “This (corruption) reinforces the need for the study, and if we don’t have a study you’ll never get trust back in the department. We need some outside group to come in and look at it.”

State Inspector General Patrick Maley told Setzler in a letter earlier this month that his office is creating a proposal to seek bids from outside consulting firms. The result, Maley said, should provide greater insight than a study by other state agencies.

“This document then can create the common framework for DOT management and legislative oversight to ensure the agency has the proper organizational cornerstone and plan for sustained long-term health,” Maley wrote.

The General Assembly’s investigative arm, the Legislative Audit Council, published an exhaustive study earlier this year of the transportation agency. It found that putting the chief internal auditor under a DOT Commission panel last August rendered the position “ineffective” and “impaired (the) independence” of the office.

In the roads funding and reform bill passed last month, SCDOT’s six-member auditing department was moved from the agency’s policy making commission to State Auditor George Kennedy’s office.

“We are working with SCDOT management divisions on the role and plan for them that will assist DOT and basically accomplish their objective to assure good internal controls to deter fraud, waste and abuse,” Kennedy said. “In 30 to 45 days we will have a plan in place.”

But the fraud investigation and indictments weren’t a result of the changes made by the law, which took effect on July 1, Kennedy and SCDOT said.

Neither SCDOT nor State Law Enforcement Division officials commented on what spurred the investigation of the four allegedly involved in the kickback schemes or if any additional investigations are ongoing.

It took substantial effort to get reforms passed this year, said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who helped write and rally support for roads legislation. He said those roadblocks won’t stop him for pushing for more next year.

“The law’s main component gave clear authority to Secretary Christy Hall to run DOT, whereas before you had two bosses with the commission and the secretary,” Simrill said. “The next question really becomes the commission itself and should the SCDOT be a true cabinet form of government.”

Gov. Nikki Haley criticized lawmakers while signing the roads bill, which she called “status quo” because of its relative lack of reform. On Friday, her spokeswoman Chaney Adams said the indictments prove the need for further changes.

“This is exactly why we said real reform — not what was passed this year — is so important: not only would it finally allow the agency to focus on road improvements that are most needed, it would allow for a clean sweep of all of the operations, provide true accountability, and help to eliminate corruption,” Adams said.