Wilbur Smith Neck Deep In Rail Rabble
Shortly after she was elected governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley waded into a contentious dispute between the state of South Carolina and the city of North Charleston. The issue was (and is) the location of a massive new intermodal rail hub – although questions are now being raised regarding Haley’s attempt to “derail” one of the competing plans.
Why? Because the architect of the plan that Haley tried to sabotage is none other than Wilbur Smith Associates – the engineering firm that paid her tens of thousands of dollars in 2007 and 2008 (money she failed to disclose publicly) and then fired her after she failed to “meet expectations.”
The new rail hub is part of a decade-long effort to add new capacity to the Port of Charleston – which has seen its competitive position plummet over the last decade. Specifically, the hub would provide rail access to a new port terminal located on the site of the former Charleston Navy base.
The key question? Where the facility should be built …
According to a 2002 memorandum of understanding between the state and North Charleston, the facility was supposed to be built at the south end of the former Navy Base, a racially-diverse area. Last December, however, the S.C. Department of Commerce began condemning property for the purpose of building a hub at the north end of the former base – which is populated almost exclusively by African-Americans.
In an appearance on a radio show in Charleston, S.C. four months ago, Haley was asked whether or not the state would honor its memorandum of understanding with North Charleston regarding the location of this hub.
“A promise made will be a promise kept,” Haley responded.
“I’m going to write that down,” the show’s host Richard Todd said at the time.
At a press conference the following day, Haley reiterated her strong support for the agreement.
However, in a preview of future discombobulation, S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt privately rebuked Haley’s comments the following week and told the governor not to discuss the issue in the future – which she hasn’t done.
Why did Hitt do that? Because the state has absolutely no intention of keeping its promise to North Charleston. In fact, last month Hitt’s agency (along with the S.C. State Ports Authority) sued the city in an effort to overturn the 2002 agreement and effectively confiscate city property pursuant to the new plan.
Obviously, the battle over where to build the hub has escalated into a major political firefight – with North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey waging war against some of the state’s most powerful politicians, including Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman. In fact, last month Summey raised the Gadsden flag over City Hall in North Charleston to protest what he called the state’s unlawful “confiscation” efforts.
Summey is also planning a high-profile counter suit against the state.
Meanwhile, S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms – the State Ports Authority’s “go-to” guy in the S.C. Senate – attempted to strip North Charleston’s funding in the FY 2011-12 state budget by inserting a proviso that would have blocked funds for any municipality that sues the state.
“Larry Grooms has decided that the state is better suited to managing a new rail terminal than a private company,” Chris Haire of the Charleston City Paper observed, nothing that Grooms’ stance on this issue is distinctly at odds with his stated support for free market principles.
Obviously, this isn’t the fist time that such an inconsistency has emerged as it relates to Grooms and the ports.
But why did Haley step into this fight? Particularly when the end result of her involvement – not unlike the end result of the Amazon debacle – was a compelling demonstration of her political impotence?
Sources tell FITS Haley inserted herself in the debate in an attempt to settle an old score with Wilbur Smith Associates. That’s the Columbia, S.C.-based global engineering firm that paid Haley $42,500 between 2007-09 to “do nothing,” according to its spokeswoman.
Wilbur Smith Associates – which crafted the rail plan the state is pushing – is a contractor for the S.C. Department of Commerce.
While Haley’s end game wasn’t made clear, our sources say she was trying to “cause headaches” for her former employer by wading into the controversy.
Haley – who claims to advocate transparency in government - failed to report any of the income she received from Wilbur Smith on her statements of economic interest. In fact, the vast majority of the income she earned ($40,500) wasn’t reported until two weeks after the GOP primary election last June – mere hours before Republicans voted in a runoff election between her and former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett.
By that point, the company had already let her go.
“I HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG”
Originally, Wilbur Smith Associates said it hired Haley because of her connections – a statement which in an of itself should have raised an immediate red flag.
“Periodically we hire folks who have good contacts,” a company official said last June. “I have known her to be a very connected woman.”
Haley hasn’t publicly commented on the work she did for the company, although in private conversations she has previously claimed she did accounting work for the firm.
“I have done nothing wrong,” Haley told The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper a year ago, without elaborating on the work she did for Wilbur Smith.
Haley has also refused to specify why she recused herself from a 2007 vote involving another Wilbur Smith Associates project.
State House insiders have accused Haley of openly lobbying for the company – particularly as it relates to a dispute over the location of the S.C. Farmers’ Market. Haley received $30,000 from Wilbur Smith in 2007 and $10,500 in 2008 – amounts that some say were tied to specific projects.
As with her hostile 2010 breakup with Lexington Medical Center – which has also spawned plenty of heartburn for the new governor – Haley’s separation from Wilbur Smith Associates was far from amicable.
“Certainly (Haley’s) services weren’t meeting our expectations,” Wilbur Smith corporate communications director Danielle Gadow told reporter Corey Hutchins of The (Columbia, S.C.) Free Times in a recent interview, adding that Haley’s poor job performance was why “she does not work for us (anymore).”
Obviously, count on FITS to continue investigating Haley’s relationship with this company and how it may have impacted her involvement with this dispute.