COLUMBIA, South Carolina — To combat the perception that contractors who hire former Department of Transportation employees get an advantage in winning contracts, the SCDOT is adopting a new rule limiting what those ex-employees can do, the state agency's acting secretary said Tuesday.
Christy Hall told a House oversight panel the policy bars employees who leave the agency from working on new road construction projects for 365 days. The agency canceled advertisements Monday so it could revise and reissue the bid solicitations, she said.
The new policy is aimed at clarifying existing state ethics law.
Hall said it's a response to an unsuccessful legislative proposal and the resulting departure of high-level staff. The failed budget clause would have barred companies that hire a DOT engineer from winning any DOT contract for one year. Three employees with decades of experience left in a two-week span — ahead of what would have been the July 1 effective date — out of concern they wouldn't be able to work after retiring from the DOT, she said.
Several others left within the last six months.
Hall acknowledged "some gray areas" in the ethics law regarding an ex-staffer's allowed involvement on a DOT project.
The proposal "certainly got our attention," said Hall, who became acting secretary July 1 following Janet Oakley's resignation. "It became readily apparent that there's a perception issue with people getting contracts and, yes, we may be following the letter of the law with the ethics act, but there are still complaints about the appearance of impropriety."
Paul Townes, the DOT's chief internal auditor, told the panel it's a legitimate concern, since ex-staffers can be seen at DOT commission meetings.
"They're there almost the next month," he said. "I think there's public misconception."
The policy's wording is expected to be finalized later this week. Hall noted she had not yet briefed commissioners on the new rule.
The panel's chairwoman, Rep. Phyllis Henderson, R-Greer, called it a step in the right direction.
Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, said he too supports the concept, but projects take a "lot longer than 365 days" between their bidding and construction. He's eager to see the rule's final wording.
"Does it solve what it intended to solve? No," said Norman, a real estate developer. "We do have a lot of good employees who work there. They're hired by different firms to navigate the system."
Their subcommittee is reviewing the agency's budget and spending practices to prepare for next year's debate on how to fix South Carolina's deteriorating roads. The House passed a plan last spring that would have generated an additional $400 million yearly for road and bridge construction. A plan advanced to the Senate floor would have raised twice that, but a filibuster prevented senators from voting on it before the session ended.
The bill will be on the Senate calendar under special debate status when the Legislature returns in January.
Activists who oppose increasing the state's 16.75-cents-per-gallon fuel tax — unchanged since 1987 — want to shift the debate from funding to reform.
DOT Commission Chairman Jim Rozier told the panel the agency can't improve the nation's fourth-largest state highway system without additional money.
This story has been corrected to show that a failed legislative proposal would have barred companies that hire a DOT engineer from winning any DOT contract for one year, not two years.