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Embattled SCDOT Director Resigns

Sun January 01, 2006 - Southeast Edition
CEG



COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Embattled state Transportation Department (DOT) Director Elizabeth Mabry stepped down Dec. 19 amid claims the agency wasted millions of dollars.

The state Transportation Commission agreed to pay the state’s retirement system approximately $40,000, which will allow Mabry to retire Dec. 31 with full benefits.

“She came to us and said she wanted to retire,” said Tee Hooper, chairman of the Transportation Commission, which oversees the agency.

“I think it’s the best for her and the best for the agency,” said Hooper, who has called for Mabry’s resignation for more than a year.

A Legislative Audit Council report released in November found the department paid twice as much as necessary to hire temporary employees, prepaid millions of dollars for projects eliminated from contracts and spent millions of dollars on environmental violations.

Mabry has disputed the audit’s findings and called it unfair.

Hooper said Mabry’s resignation will allow the agency to “move forward.”

But a spokesman of Gov. Mark Sanford said the problems at the DOT “have never been about any one person.”

“The problems at DOT are due to a structure that perpetuates a lack of accountability,” spokesman Joel Sawyer said. “Until that structure is fixed, we doubt that no matter who occupies that role, that the results are going to be much different.”

Sanford has long wanted to make the Transportation Department a Cabinet agency, with its director appointed by the governor. House Speaker Bobby Harrell said he supported the idea.

“I’ve always been in support of that, but I don’t think the votes are there in the General Assembly to make that happen,” the Charleston Republican said.

Currently, two House and Senate committees are holding hearings on the audit’s findings. The House committee recently asked state Attorney General Henry McMaster to investigate the agency’s spending.

The committee wanted to know if the agency broke any laws.

House DOT Study Committee chairwoman Annette Young, R-Summerville, asked commissioners if Mabry and other DOT leaders were “trying to deceive the Legislature” on the agency’s cash balance.

Transportation Commissioner Bob Harrell Sr., the House speaker’s father, said that while there wasn’t an effort to secretly deceive the General Assembly, there was an effort to “make the balances low.”

“The idea was that you guys were having a really tough time with the money, and that you were going to be looking everywhere for money,” he said. “And if it looked like to you guys we had a couple million dollars that we weren’t using, that you might borrow it.”

Legislators will draft a reform bill based on the committees’ findings, Speaker Harrell said.

The committee meetings have “made it clear that there are serious problems that need to be dealt with,” he said.

“Ultimately, problems of this nature are the responsibility of the leadership. When someone sees the situation the way she did and decides to take the kind of step she did, it’s better for everyone.”

State Highway Engineer Tony Chapman will serve as the agency’s acting director.