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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Watchdog Says Lawmakers Rigged Airport Agency

COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) - A South Carolina advocate of good government sued some the state's most powerful political leaders in Richland County Court, alleging cronyism in the Charleston County Aviation Authority.

The Charleston County Aviation Authority oversees activities at Charleston International Airport and the Charleston County Aviation District political subdivision, which has the same geographic boundaries as county itself.

The area has been undergoing a significant boom since The Boeing Co. announced in early 2010 that it was investing $750 million in a new assembly facility plant next door. Southwest Airlines began operating seven daily nonstop flights out of the airport in March 2011.

Now the authority's former chairman, Waring S. Howe Jr., and the South Carolina Public Interest Foundation claim that the General Assembly wrongly modified the authority's membership in 2007. The act passed by the legislators added two positions to the authority, with the stipulation that the chairman and vice chairman of the Charleston County Legislative Delegation or their designees fill those seats.

Further, the act in question only applied to Charleston County.

Then-Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed the law, writing that "the state constitution clearly prohibits the enactment of special legislation where a 'general law can be made applicable.'"

"It is unconstitutional for the General Assembly to pass special legislation ... in contravention of a general law," Sanford wrote. "Each county's aviation board or commission should be subject to the same general law, whether that includes the chair and vice-chair of the legislative delegation as additional members or not."

In the face of that veto, How and the foundation say that the General Assembly voted 12-0 in the House and 43- 1 in the Senate to override.

Rep. Harry "Chip" Limehouse III and Sen. Pro Tem Glenn McConnell have served as chair and vice chair of the authority ever since.

Though the Legislature's motivation is uncertain, attorney Jim Carpenter, who filed the lawsuit Monday, speculated "that it represents the opportunity to be on the development around the airport."

"There are contracts for all kinds of vendors and suppliers and so on, all of which run through the board," Carpenter said in an interview with Courthouse News. "It's a position of influence. ... [One] that gives these individuals the right to direct the happenings of a certain segment of commerce and society in Charleston, best I can tell."

"It's one more pie that they've got their finger in," he added. "Limehouse has got his fingers in a lot of pies, McConnell has his fingers in a lot of pies ... and, apparently, they just like that stuff."

Certainly, Charleston International Airport has been a hub of activity in recent years. As Boeing creates the second production line for its new, 787-passenger liner on one side of the property, the airport itself welcomed a record 2.5 million people in 2011 - 25 percent more than the previous year, airport officials said.

Just last week the airport announced construction will begin in April on an additional 428 new parking spaces in a wooded area next to the existing parking lot. These new spaces are merely a precursor to an even larger construction project to double the 1,200-space parking deck, according to the authority.

In a push to handle anticipated continued growth, the airport's 27-year-old terminal building is about to undergo a major makeover. This summer will mark the start of a $150 million expansion project to increase the size of the 324,000-square-foot terminal building by 25 percent.

As part of the project, the airport is expanding the terminal apron to add six new gates to the existing 10, as well as a third baggage carousel.

That's a lot of pie, and the magnitude of what's at stake is one reason why Carpenter does not predict an early settlement of the case.

"I don't have confidence that they'll back down," he told Courthouse News. "I think this will go to a judicial determination. If they wanted to back down, they would have backed down before now."

Edward "Ned" Sloan Jr., a retired paving contractor from Greenville, S.C., founded the South Carolina Public Interest Foundation in 2005 to finance a slew of lawsuits he has filed in recent years to ensure that lawmakers adhere to the state constitution.

"He does this because he believes it is more effective than lobbying politicians and he sues, not to question of any legislative action, but to enforce the law as it is written," Carpenter said of Sloan.

Sloan's lawsuits generally pertain to public procurement and taxpayer dollars.

Before filing the current action, Carpenter and the foundation filed a petition that asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to bypass the trial court and accept a case of extraordinary interest to the citizens of the state.

"But the Supreme Court turned us down, and it went back to the trial court," Carpenter said.

"Throughout that process, they opposed our petition, never offered a compromise or anything else, and I expect they are going to fight this," he said.

"I think we've got four good arguments, he added. "But I do expect a long fight."

The lawsuit claims that the vote by the Legislature was insufficient to override Sanford's veto. It also says the state constitution prohibits the General Assembly from enacting special laws pertaining only to a single county, and that the participation of the defendant lawmakers on the authority violates sections of the state constitution.

"These are real constitutional problems, and I think we have a pretty strong and pretty reasonable argument to make against them," Carpenter said.

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