COLUMBIA S.C. — Mismanagement and a lack of planning are largely to blame for construction delays at a troubled transportation research center at South Carolina State University named for U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, according to a state audit released Tuesday.
The Legislative Audit Council found no evidence of missing money in its limited review, but questioned spending and billing. The report also noted the Orangeburg school doesn’t have a viable plan to raise more than $80 million needed to complete the center, which was announced more than a dozen years ago.
“This report was mindboggling to me. The people responsible for this enterprise … made the Keystone Cops look like a professional business organization,” said Mallory Factor, a council board member from Charleston.
Lawmakers asked for the audit after years of construction delays, coupled with newspaper reports that school officials couldn’t account for millions in state and federal funding for the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center, announced in 1998 as a showpiece for research and training of workers in the transportation industry.
Auditors noted that a random review of expenses from 2007 to 2009 raised questions about travel reimbursements, such as paying $426 nightly for a hotel, and workers double-dipping in pay. The agency said it forwarded that information to the State Law Enforcement Division for review.
As of March, the university had spent $8 million money available since 2002. The first building is set for completion this year. That’s the 11,000-square-foot “chiller plant,” which is meant to cool the entire six-building center.
The project suffered a nearly two-year setback after construction started on land the university thought it owned, but didn’t. Other delays were caused by the site’s lack of water pressure and failing to conduct a traffic study for years, according to auditors.
The university had $24 million in grants from the U.S. Transportation Department originally, but was not able to get more in 2006 and also lost its designation as a federal transportation center. A federal audit on one of those grants found financial records were confusing and accountants could not tell where money went. Other audits by federal and state agencies are in the works.
Even with full funding, auditors said that the center would not be finished until 2020, citing a lack of oversight and experience as the causes for numerous construction delays.
Where the money would come from is unknown.
“Everybody thought earmarks would be free-flowing forever,” said the audit council’s executive director, Thomas Bardin.
Sen. Robert Ford, who led the request for the audit, said Tuesday he’s extremely disappointed but hopes to use the report’s findings to improve the school.
“There’s nothing good in there at all, absolutely nothing good,” said Ford, D-Charleston. “It’s sad it had to be done. It’s serious, and it’s something we’ve got to straighten out because we want South Carolina State to be one of the best schools in the country, and we can’t do that if we don’t have people properly looking out for the money.”
The university needs $3 million in state matching funds to complete the first phase. University officials told auditors they would get the money by siphoning some of their annual lottery money over the next few years.
But legislators said that money is meant for students, not buildings, and questioned whether the school can legally do that. Ford said the money could be raised from alumni.
In a statement, university President George Cooper said the school would carefully review the audit, which he said vindicates South Carolina State’s position.
“The most important finding in the report confirms what we’ve always known and said: there is no missing $50 million at S.C. State,” Cooper said. “We are committed to correcting the mistakes of the past, to reforming our policies and procedures and to moving forward to build a stronger university.”
Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who signed the audit request, said it takes a lot to lose a federal designation, indicating the extent of financial mismanagement and incompetency.
“The real losers here are the students and parents who paid their hard-earned dollars for children to attend a state university with a world-class transportation center as was promised, and those promises have all been broken,” said Limehouse, chairman of the House subcommittee that writes colleges’ budgets. “Due to the colossal mishandling and mismanagement of this project, it is dead. I don’t think it will ever come to fruition.”
On Tuesday, Clyburn said he felt South Carolina State was being unfairly bullied by people who didn’t want to see the transportation center which he views as a centerpiece to help attract non-black students to the historically black college succeed.
“I saw this transportation center as a way to do that 13 years ago, and that’s what we did,” Clyburn said. “But those people who did not want this to happen manufactured all of this controversy, and it took on a life of its own.”
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said Clyburn should be outraged.
“I’m surprised at his nonchalant attitude,” said Gilliard, who is Black. “It’s always our responsibility to ask questions and stand up and be leaders. It’s not about picking on an institution. It’s about being accountable.”