THINK OF IT AS a political Rorschach test: To the governor and some others who see the state Transportation Department as a hotbed of corruption, the indictments of three former employees on charges of bilking taxpayers out of $400,000 underscore the need to clean the place out and put the governor in charge. To those who oppose gubernatorial control, the indictments demonstrate that we’ve been talking too much about political structure instead of internal structure.
In fact, they do neither.
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From all appearances, the indictments are an example of the sort of low-level corruption that occurs from time to time in any bureaucracy, public or private. They do not suggest that the agency is being run badly, or well. They do not suggest that the agency is wasteful, or frugal. They do not suggest that it is trustworthy, or not. What they suggest is that human beings, a certain portion of whom are dishonest, work at the agency.
If there’s an overarching point here about the agency, it’s that the people in charge now seem to oppose corruption: Commission Chairman Mike Wooten tells The Greenville News that it was agency management who alerted law enforcement to what officials thought might be illegal activities. If so, that’s certainly encouraging. What it’s not is surprising — or relevant to the question of what changes should or should not be made in how the agency is governed or even structured.
Although some of my fellow critics like to throw around words like corruption without any qualifiers, no one who has seriously considered the problems at the Transportation Department has concluded that the cause is corruption. That was a problem, a quarter century ago, when highway contractors were doling out gifts to high-level officials at the agency. But we got rid of the management, indicted the contractors and overhauled the governance structure (the first of three mini-steps in the right direction, the sum of which still don’t put us where we need to be).
The corruption at the Transportation Department is political corruption — which is perfectly legal and which a lot of legislators and others believe is perfectly good. It is the corruption of parochialism, of horse-trading. The corruption that puts narrow interests ahead of the interests of the state as a whole.
Now, there will always be differences of opinion about what the state’s road priorities should be.
Some believe decisions about road improvements should be strictly numbers driven: Plug them into a formula and figure out where most people are served the best.
Others believe we should focus on quality as well as quantity, and on equality as well as quality — on the idea that people who live in isolated communities have every bit as much right to expect good roads as those who live in dense urban areas. I don’t agree with that, but it’s a legitimate point of view, and the debate over which of those approaches is best is a legitimate debate.
What’s not a legitimate point of view is the idea that we should maintain a system where people in charge are able to look out for their own narrow interests instead of the interests of the state as a whole, using whatever metric they use to determine the interests of the state as a whole. And again, I’m not talking about illegal self-interest; I’m talking about the narrow interest of using my position on the Transportation Commission to serve the needs of my community, rather than putting those needs in the context of the state’s needs.
What’s not a legitimate point of view is the idea that the priorities of the majority should be ignored. It’s one thing for government to protect minority interests; it’s another to ignore the interests of the majority — which is what too easily happens when commissioners aren’t tasked with looking out for the good of the entire state.
It is this sort of corruption — which has absolutely nothing to do with low-level employees crossing the legal line when they try to game the system — that plagues the Transportation Department. It is this sort of corruption — which is not only legal but actually encouraged by state law and practice — that diverts significant amounts of money from our most pressing needs and sends them to … a back road in Florence County where the traffic is so light that you can lie down in the middle of the road at rush hour.
The attorney general and SLED and the courts can deal with the low-level criminal corruption that is alleged to have occurred at the Transportation Department, and that occurs in other agencies where human beings are employed.
What our Legislature and our governor need to fight is the legal sort of corruption at our roads agency that has always been a part of our political culture. And that starts with fixing the latest reform that claims to give the governor control over the commission but does not.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.