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Colleton County Deputy Dennis Compton

A key federal report on what happened to millions of unaccounted for dollars for the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center is being withheld by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The state's Legislative Audit Council had planned to rely on information from that report to complete its long-awaited investigation on the troubled center at S.C. State University in Orangeburg.

The Audit Council's report, which will now cover only a portion of transportation center spending, could be a huge disappointment for many who want to know how millions of grant dollars for transportation programs were spent.

The USDOT's Federal Highway Administration has refused to release information on federal grants to The Post and Courier, claiming it is exempt, at least for now, under the federal Freedom of Information Act because it is "deliberative" and "predecisional."

It is unclear how long, or if ever, the agency will take to release the report.

"We're disappointed," said Tom Bardin, the Audit Council's director. "We originally intended to see copies from other agencies before finishing our report, but we can't wait any longer. We're going to proceed."

Bill Rogers, director of the South Carolina Press Association, said, "It's a typical response to a federal Freedom of Information request: It's incomplete and slow."

And he thinks U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, assistant Democratic leader, should use his influence to push to get the information released as soon as possible.

"They should be ashamed of themselves for withholding this information," Rogers said of the USDOT. "This could drag on for years."

State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who with a bipartisan group of state legislators called for the Audit

Council investigation, said he also would like Clyburn "to encourage the federal government to submit the report it is sitting on."

"We need to put it all on the table so the state can move forward with a great university," Ford said. "We need to clear the air on everything once and for all."

If the Audit Council's report doesn't include the federal grant money, "there's going to be a lot of information the public is not privy to, and it's going to go on and on."

Clyburn said, "I fully support a thorough and comprehensive review of the transportation center at South Carolina State. Conducting such an investigation has no timeline or expiration date. I will await the findings when the USDOT's Federal Highway Administration believes they are ready to be released, and will do nothing to intervene in the process."

A USDOT spokesman said officials were attempting to respond to questions from the newspaper about who decided to hold the information, and whether and when it might ultimately be released. But they were unable to respond Monday.

Ford pushed for the Audit Council investigation in response to a June 14 Post and Courier report which found that after 12 years, more than $50 million had flowed to the transportation center. But the site for the new building was vacant, no transportation research was under way and the program had lost its federal designation. The university subsequently began construction on the first phase of the building.

Roughly half of the $50 million was for a new transportation complex to be named in honor of Clyburn, a graduate of S.C. State, South Carolina's only public, historically black university. Only about $5 million of that had been spent. The rest remained available to the university. The other half was for transportation-related programs.

After the Audit Council launched its investigation, university leaders, with the support of Clyburn, asked for a federal investigation on the program money.

The Audit Council agreed that it would use the work of federal auditors because it was being conducted by an independent Inspector General. But the Federal Highway Administration now says it has final say over what's released.

And it is going to review the Inspector General's recommendations to determine an appropriate course of action. After it has responded to the recommendations and the matter is considered closed, the newspaper can submit another request for information.

The same Inspector General's office that conducted the latest investigation at S.C. State also reviewed transportation center records in 2006. It then issued a scathing report on one of those grants, the National Summer Transportation Institute, which found that the school's financial records were in such disarray that accountants couldn't determine where millions of dollars went.

Anthony Holloman, S.C. State's vice president of institutional advancement, said the university is complying with requests from the Audit Council and the USDOT, "but we don't control the process." The university is "awaiting the findings and will move forward," he said.

Bardin said he was going to present his report to the Audit Council's board Wednesday. If the board approves it, he will forward a copy to the university for comments. That process usually takes up to 10 days.

And he thinks the Audit Council report will be informative, even though it doesn't include information on much of the federal grant money. The council, he said, looked at three major issues. First, it closely reviewed how a $6 million federal grant was used. It also has reviewed how losing the designation as a federal transportation center has affected the center and transportation education programs at the university. And finally, it took a close look at how money for the new building was spent, and the causes for construction delays that put the project years behind schedule.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.