Gov. Henry McMaster quietly appointed the owner of a well-known Columbia restaurant – and generous campaign donor – to a vacant state Department of Transportation Commission seat, but a lawmaker is questioning the selection process.
The 2nd Congressional District Legislative Delegation is scheduled this morning to vote whether to confirm McMaster’s appointment of Bill Dukes, owner of the Blue Marlin restaurant in Columbia’s popular Vista district, to the DOT Commission seat representing the 2nd Congressional District, which covers all or parts of Richland, Lexington, Orangeburg, Aiken and Barnwell counties.
Contacted Monday by The Nerve, state Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, who is chairman of the 17-member Richland County legislative delegation, said he wasn’t aware of Dukes’ appointment until notified of today’s meeting. The 2nd Congressional delegation is made up of the legislative delegations representing counties within the district.
“I’m stunned,” Howard said. “We just get a call or an email – come to a meeting tomorrow morning to confirm the candidate. No process – I’m concerned about that.”
The meeting notice to members of the 2nd Congressional delegation was issued by longtime state Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington. Setzler, the former Senate minority leader, didn’t respond Monday to written and phone messages from The Nerve seeking comment.
The Nerve on Monday sent written questions about Dukes’ appointment to Thomas Limehouse, the chief attorney in the Governor’s Office. Limehouse later said he forwarded the questions to McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes, who didn’t respond.
Under the gas-tax-hike law that took effect four years ago, the governor appoints a DOT Commission candidate in each of the state’s seven congressional districts, though the respective legislative delegations can reject the nominees or force new appointments if they don’t act on the initial ones within 45 days of the referrals. The governor also appoints two other at-large DOT commissioners, with confirmation by the Legislature as a whole.
Records indicate that McMaster, a Republican, submitted Dukes’ appointment to the Legislature on June 21.
The DOT Commission determines which bad state-maintained roads and bridges get fixed, and approves funding and priorities for those projects. Since the gas-tax-hike law took effect on July 1, 2017, The Nerve repeatedly has pointed out DOT’s relatively slow progress in completing major repaving and road reconstruction projects statewide.
McMaster in 2019 named Dukes, a Vietnam veteran and retired U.S. Air Force captain, to an advisory search committee to recommend the first secretary of the newly created state Department of Veterans’ Affairs, according to a Governor’s Office press release.
In 2017 and 2018, Dukes contributed a total of $7,000 to McMaster’s primary and general election campaigns for governor – the maximum allowed under state law for individual donors – state campaign records show.
In an interview Monday with The Nerve, Dukes, of Chapin, said he “reached out to the Governor’s Office expressing interest” in the vacant DOT Commission seat after he learned that commissioner John Burriss was “having to resign because of some family, personal reasons.”
“I spoke with John, and he suggested I ought to consider that,” Dukes said. “I thought a lot about it, and I wanted to continue my public service.”
In a written response Monday, DOT spokesman Pete Poore said Burriss’ resignation was announced at the May 20 DOT Commission meeting, adding Burriss wasn’t present then, and that it was “reported that he cited family health reasons for his resignation.”
McMaster in 2018 selected Burriss, a former state lawmaker from Lexington County and owner of a real estate and construction management company, to replace John Hardee, the son-in-law of longtime state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and an outdoor-advertising company executive, on the DOT Commission.
McMaster’s announcement then came days after The Nerve revealed that Hardee was a paid consultant with an outdoor-advertising lobbying trade group that received thousands of state tax dollars annually for public service announcements, though much of the revenue was used to cover Hardee’s salary, as well as for lobbying expenses and campaign donations to state lawmakers and political groups.
In 2019, Hardee pleaded guilty to one federal count of attempted evidence tampering in an unrelated case and received probation.
Dukes on Monday said under state law, if he is confirmed for Burriss’ seat, he would have to resign his seat on the Richland-Lexington Airport District Commission, a position that he’s held for 14 years.
Asked to confirm the State Ethics Commission records of his contributions to McMaster’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Dukes replied, “Yeah, but I don’t think that’s the issue.”
“I would contribute (campaign money) to both sides,” he said. “I’m a pretty bipartisan supporter. I like the person who is a good leader and will take our state and community to higher limits.”
Dukes said he believes he is qualified for the DOT Commission seat in part because he has “a lot of contacts and relationships developed over the years with the DOT, and I’ve enjoyed my relationship with that group and admired their efforts.”
He noted that he had “interactions all the way back to the planning and construction of the (Columbia) Convention Center” when he was chairman of the convention center authority.
Under state law, DOT Commission candidates must have at least a bachelor’s degree or a “background of at least five years in any combination of the following fields of expertise”: transportation, construction, finance, law, environmental issues, management or engineering.
“Bill has been a business person all his life; and my goodness, if anything needs to be run like a business, it’s roads,” said state Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, when contacted Monday by The Nerve.
Dukes said after he requested that the governor appoint him, he was “in contact with members of that congressional delegation,” including Huggins, who is chairman of the House Regulations and Administrative Procedures Committee; Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, who is chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee and whom Dukes identified as his senator; and a “couple of other people that I know in that group.”
“Actually, I extended an invitation to every one of them via email, that I appreciated the opportunity to serve and that if any of them would like to reach out to me and have a conversation, that I would welcome it,” Dukes said.
Howard, the Richland County legislative delegation chairman, said he doesn’t recall being contacted by anyone about Dukes’ appointment before notification of today’s confirmation meeting.
“It doesn’t look very transparent to me,” said Howard, who also is chairman of the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee.
Today’s meeting is scheduled to be held in the Gressette Building, where senators’ offices are located, at the State House complex. If confirmed, Dukes would serve the remainder of Burriss’ four-year term, which expires next Feb. 15.
State law requires that a successful DOT Commission candidate receive a majority of the weighted vote of the senators and House members in the congressional delegation. Generally, if lawmakers represent more constituents in a congressional district, their votes for a candidate would count more compared to other legislators’ votes.
As The Nerve previously has pointed out, residents who want their lawmakers to push their respective DOT commissioner to get their bad roads and bridges fixed might not get much help from those legislators if they live in areas where the lawmakers have low-weighted votes.