When it comes to Florence County, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank apparently likes to take a more “hands-on” approach.

From the start of 2010 through March of this year, the Infrastructure Bank made a total of 642 payments to Florence County – mainly to the Florence County Clerk of Court’s Office – which represented nearly 19 percent of the total 3,413 total payments made by the bank during the period, The Nerve found in a review of state treasurer records obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

No other public agency or private company or individual came close to the number of payments made to Florence County – home county of Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and a member of the STIB Board of Directors.

The payments to Florence County and Clerk of Court’s Office during the period totaled more than $1 million, ranging from mostly $10 payments to $184,615, The Nerve’s review found. Contacted recently, Barbara Price of the Clerk of Court’s Office told The Nerve the $10 payments were filing fees for easements, deeds or rights-of-way for various road projects, while the large payments primarily were deposits for court-ordered judgments in property condemnation cases involving the Pamplico Highway expansion project.

At a January 2014 press conference at his wife’s real estate office in Florence, Leatherman bragged about the collective $488 million – $340 million from STIB and $148 million from a penny sales tax increase passed in Florence County in 2006 – for six road projects in the county, including the Pamplico Highway project.

“Almost one half billion for the six projects, all exclusively for Florence County highways,” Leatherman said, according to a WBTW-TV story.

Since its creation in 1997, STIB has funneled several billion dollars for large, mainly expansion projects – not road maintenance – in select counties, which critics contend was based more on political considerations than on objective criteria.

As for the proposed 24.2-mile Pamplico Highway widening project, some residents and others have criticized it as a waste of tax dollars, contending a road that gets relatively little traffic doesn’t need to be expanded from two to five lanes.

Valerie Gleason, who runs a medical-billing business out of her Pamplico Highway home, told The Nerve she never heard of the Infrastructure Bank when dealing with the state on a right-of-way purchase for the expansion project.

State treasurer records indicate that STIB last July paid Gleason and her husband $10,000. Gleason said although she didn’t have a copy of the payment check, she cited a DOT letter that accompanied the payment with the words “Project SIB-FLOR” in the subject line. “SIB” often has been used as an acronym for the Infrastructure Bank.

“What they (the state) initially offered to us was absurd,” Gleason recalled.

Gleason said the addition of a center turn lane on Pamplico Highway will make it easier for her to turn into her driveway, though she questioned whether three new lanes are needed.

As has been his longstanding practice with The Nerve, Leatherman did not respond to a written request seeking comment.

Leatherman exerts considerable influence over transportation funding in South Carolina. As the Senate president pro tempore, he has control over two of the appointments to the seven-member STIB Board of Directors, plus serves as the Senate Finance Committee chairman; a member of the Senate Transportation Committee; chairman of the Joint Bond Review Committee; a member of the Joint Transportation Review Committee, which nominates candidates to the Department of Transportation Commission (which includes his son-in-law, John Hardee); and a member of the governing board of the S.C. Budget and Control Board, chaired by Gov. Nikki Haley.

The Nerve recently sent written questions to Debra Rountree, STIB’s director, asking, among other things, why so many payments have been made to Florence County in recent years in comparison to other counties and private companies or individuals.

In a written response to The Nerve, Tami Reed, an accounting manager with STIB, said only, “Most of these should be filing fees and deposits of ROW (right-of-way) condemnation amounts with (the) Clerk of Court as required by the SC Eminent Domain Procedures Act.”

But Reed didn’t directly answer why Florence County received the largest number of STIB payments during the period in The Nerve’s review, nor did she provide specifics on the biggest individual payments to the county, though she was asked to do so.

Rick Brundrett is a reporter for The Nerve.org, an investigative news site run by the South Carolina Policy Council. Danny Morris contributed to this story.

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