COLUMBIA — State lawmakers told South Carolina State University's president that they need answers about how millions of state and federal dollars for the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center have been spent.
Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, asked a series of what he called 'friendly' questions of President George Cooper before a House budget-writing subcommittee Tuesday.
A Post and Courier investigation last summer found that more than $55 million in state and federal money had flowed to the center over the past 12 years, about half for transportation programs and half for a new transportation research building. But no transportation research was under way and school officials were unable to explain where the money went. In response to the report, a bipartisan group of state legislators called for investigation by their watchdog group, the Legislative Audit Council.
The councils' report is expected in March.
Cooper told the committee Tuesday that about $17 million of the building money remains available to the university. He did not explain in detail how program money has been spent. But said he would provide answers to legislators' questions as soon as possible.
Limehouse said the information is needed by the House Ways and Means Committee, which will draft the first version of the state budget in coming weeks.
He also said all higher education institutions will see their budgets dramatically cut in the upcoming fiscal year, but he wasn't sure how unanswered questions at S.C. State might affect the university's funding.
'This committee is charged with recommending to the full Ways and Means Committee what your appropriation is going to be 2011-2012,' Limehouse said. 'I think I, as the chairman, am allowed to ask a few simple questions as to what you're doing. If you don't know, just simply state that you don't know. ... This is friendly question. I am trying to wrap my mind around where $50 million is located.'
Limehouse also asked Cooper for specific answers on whether any money for the center was used to pay for summer interns to go to Six Flags Over Georgia in Atlanta and Frankie's Fun Park in North Charleston. Limehouse said he doesn't have any documentation or any more details on the alleged amusement park trips.
Cooper said he was not in the position to answer those questions. He noted that he has had a relatively short tenure at the university, becoming president in 2008.
Subcommittee member Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins, said he doesn't blame Cooper for being cautious, although he did say that answers will be helpful to defuse an air of uncertainty over the university's fiscal responsibilities.
'We need to have a better understanding of what's real or not real,' Neal told Cooper.
Cooper said he was willing to provide the answers, and he took a detailed list of the questions. He also noted that the university is cooperating with the Legislative Audit Council.
He also said construction on the complex is under way after a seven-year delay, and he expects it to be completed in about a year.
Diane Knich contributed to this report.