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Former SCDOT Commissioner Sues FITSNews, Will Folks

Mike Wooten is mad we called him “corrupt …”

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Former South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) chairman Mike Wooten has reportedly filed a defamation lawsuit against this news outlet and its founding editor, Will Folks.

We have yet to see the pleading (or be served in connection with the reported action) but according to editor Charles Swenson of The Coastal Observer, the former commissioner has alleged that this news outlet “damaged his reputation with false accusations that he was involved in scandal and corruption at the agency.”

Hold up … “false allegations that Wooten was involved in scandal and corruption at the agency?”

LOL.

Has Wooten not googled himself? 

You know, we thought the last libel action filed against us was ridiculous (and it is) but this one might take the cake …

As we reported last spring upon the occasion of his resignation, Wooten’s tenure on the SCDOT commission was “marked by multiple controversies … and abysmal results for motorists and taxpayers.”  The former commissioner didn’t suffer from these terrible outcomes, though.  As we noted in our coverage his firm – DDC Engineers of Myrtle Beach, S.C. – benefitted financially from projects funded by the agency he oversees.  Not only that, during Wooten’s tenure on the commission he was busted instructing his agency to “take a hard line” on a contractor that owed his firm money.

How is that not corrupt?

That’s just one of the scandals Wooten was mixed up in, too …

As this website exclusively reported back in 2015, he threatened to fire internal auditors for attempting to root out corruption at SCDOT.  Another news outlet caught him hiding the results of incriminating agency reports from the public.

FITSNews is by no means alone in exposing Wooten’s bad behavior – or editorializing against it.  On February 8, 2016, former reporter Ron Aiken of The Nerve published a detailed investigative report questioning whether Wooten was “exerting undue influence” in his role as a SCDOT commissioner.

Numerous individuals interviewed for Aiken’s story concluded that Wooten was in fact doing just that.

Specifically, the article quoted Dana Beach of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League (SCCCL) as saying “to go down the chain and ask someone on staff to intervene on a project you have a personal financial stake in is a huge cause for concern and a serious ethical issue.”

John Crangle of Common Cause also called for Wooten to resign over the scandal.

“He should resign from the commission and have the legislature pick a replacement, because this situation doesn’t just suggest a conflict of interest, it demonstrates it,” Crangle said.

The Nerve article also quoted Dave Schwartz – former director of Americans for Prosperity – who described Wooten’s actions as “corrupt.”

“It’s using taxpayers’ dollars and resources to benefit themselves instead of doing what taxpayers expect, which is to fix the roads,” Schwarz said.  “At the end of the day, that’s what really upsets people and makes folks hesitant to send more of their hard-earned money to a corrupt system.”

Talbert Black of S.C. Campaign for Liberty was also quoted in the story, calling Wooten’s actions “a simple abuse of power.”

“As a business owner or partner, you have a recourse as a subcontractor if you don’t get paid,” Black told The Nerve.  “There are appropriate channels for that.  You don’t use your position as a DOT commissioner to send someone from DOT down to twist arms and make something happen.  It’s a simple abuse of power.”

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(DOMINION ENERGY)

Two weeks later, on February 22, 2016, Aiken published a follow-up report on The Nerve entitled “Mike Wooten and the Economics of Influence at the DOT.”

“How conflicts of interest stay out of sight in state government,” Aiken’s article was sub-headlined.

In this article, Aiken delved into the money Wooten’s firm made in various instances in which it served as “a subcontractor of a firm with a DOT contract.”

“Professionally, Wooten is a civil engineer and founder and president of DDC Engineers, which has millions of dollars in contracts with the same local government agencies who receive funding from and rely on good relationships with the DOT,” Aiken wrote.  “In one case The Nerve exclusively documented, his firm was a subcontractor on a deal in which DOT acted as a pass-through for hundreds of thousands of dollars in FHWA funding, meaning his firm was in line to receive money with DOT connections.”

“This was a clear case of how Wooten, who was not elected but appointed, could use his influence as a DOT Commissioner to leverage pressure on an elected body in a case where his firm had a financial interest,” Aiken added.

Here is the relevant excerpt from that report:

In one municipality, the town of North Myrtle Beach, a review by The Nerve of contracts with DDC dating back to 2009 showed $1.03 million worth of work. Myrtle Beach officials reported a figure of $1.56 million since 2010, but that does not including a publicly reported $10.4 million outfall system DDC Engineers received and touted on its website.

Previous reporting by The Nerve showed DDC Engineers also received more than $10,000 in direct payments from the State Infrastructure Bank.

In another contract received through a Freedom of Information Act request in Georgetown County, DDC had a contract worth $509,129 in 2011. In the town of Georgetown, contracts going back to 2011 total $51,600. Reports on DDC’s website and Facebook page list many more retail and public facility projects in the hundreds of thousands.

Though neither Horry County nor the town of Surfside Beach responded to requests by The Nerve for copies of their contracts with DDC, the $13.1 million worth of work the firm performs in just the examples found above (which does not include work DDC has done as subcontractor) show that Wooten’s financial position is tied to contracts with entities he both directly works with and supervises as a DOT Commissioner.

Again, this last line bears repeating …

Wooten’s financial position is tied to contracts with entities he both directly works with and supervises as a DOT Commissioner.”

Aiken’s story further noted that the S.C. State Ethics Commission (SCSEC) concluded Wooten had failed to properly report gifts received in his role as SCDOT commissioner for two years running – claiming he had provided the agency a “complete list” of gifts received when no such list was in fact provided.

“I will contact Mr. Wooten and advise him that he must amend his 2014 and 2015 SEIs to reflect an itemized list of all gifts,” the agency’s executive director Herb Hayden told The Nerve.

Wooten’s actions in his official capacity prompted public backlash, too.  An undated 2017 petition on the activist website Act Now echoed the corruption narrative and called on governor Henry McMaster to fire Wooten.

“Nobody who profits from SCDOT decisions should serve on its Commission,” the petition stated.  “That’s corruption!”

The petition further stated “it is time to fire Mike Wooten and nominate someone who doesn’t profit from SCDOT decisions.”

Need more?

Wooten himself explicitly referenced his firm’s business “from SCDOT” as the reason he was resigning from the commission.

“The new law basically states that commissioners cannot apply for permits from SCDOT,” Wooten told reporter Clayton Stairs of The Georgetown Times on June 22, 2017.  “So, if I stayed on the commission, I would have to abandon my business and I am certainly not willing to do that.”

The following day, Wooten’s resignation was reported on by Bristow Marchant of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper in an article entitled “SC roads commissioner resigns so his firm can keep doing state business.”

In this article, Marchant took note that Wooten was “stepping down early so his business can continue to do work for the state after a new state law take effect.” Specifically, he noted that while Wooten’s extended term was not set to expire until August of 2017, “he wanted to leave early so his engineering firm can continue seeking state work.”

Yeah …

“There is a litany of investigative journalism and government oversight reporting that documents Mike Wooten’s ethically challenged tenure at SCDOT,” our founding editor told Megan Tomasic of The (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) Sun News.  “Likewise, there is no shortage of editorial commentary on his tenure from other media outlets, elected officials and government watchdogs – including those who called on the former commissioner to resign due to ethical lapses, or who referred to his actions in office as ‘corrupt’ or an ‘abuse of power.’  None of these facts are in dispute.  In fact, the former commissioner himself admitted he was resigning his post at SCDOT because he wanted to continue making money off of taxpayers.”

Folks further told Swenson of The Coastal Observer that Wooten’s action was a “nonsense” suit.

“Cluttering our overburdened justice system with a nonsense libel suit demonstrates the former commissioner’s contempt for taxpayers has not abated since he stepped down,” he said.  “Furthermore, it shows he has absolutely no conception – or appreciation – of the First Amendment rights enjoyed by all citizens when it comes to criticizing our leaders on matters of public policy.”

We will continue to stand for that right … no matter how many frivolous suits attempt to silence us.

***

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