Report: Georgia DOT made highway decision ‘without undue influence’

A state investigation found the Georgia Department of Transportation did nothing improper when an official intervened in a highway design decision that stood to benefit him financially.

State Transportation Board member Jamie Boswell acted on behalf of a property owner who wanted GDOT to provide full highway access to a proposed $50 million shopping center near a planned Ga. 316 interchange at the Oconee Connector near Athens. Boswell’s real estate company was selling parcels at the shopping center, and the highway access could make the property more valuable.

After initially rejecting the request, GDOT granted the full access. Boswell’s involvement concerned some neighborhood residents, who said he appeared to have a conflict of interest.

In a report issued last week, the Office of the State Inspector General cleared GDOT of any wrongdoing. The report did not address the ethics of Boswell’s involvement because the inspector general has no jurisdiction over the State Transportation Board.

“After conducting multiple interviews and reviewing the relevant documents, OIG has determined that Mr. Boswell did not inappropriately impact the design decision and that GDOT’s employees performed their roles ethically and without undue influence,” the report concluded.

Boswell did not respond to a request for comment on the report. GDOT referred to a statement it made in April that said Boswell’s involvement did not influence its decision to approve the highway access.

Ian Taylor, who lives near the site of the proposed shopping center, said Boswell’s involvement was improper despite the findings of the inspector general’s report.

“Without slandering anybody, it’s not right,” Taylor said. “If you’re making money selling real estate, then don’t be on the damn commission that will potentially make you more money.”

The controversy stems from a developer’s plan to build the shopping center on 47 acres near a proposed Ga. 316 interchange at the Oconee Connector. To move the project forward, property owner Maxie Price sought new zoning of the property from the Oconee County Board of Commissioners. He also asked GDOT for a stoplight and entrance on the Oconee Connector.

GDOT initially rejected the request, saying the access point was too close to a ramp planned for the $70.5 million interchange. Instead, GDOT proposed allowing a driveway that would allow vehicles to turn right — but not left — into and out of the shopping center.

Price objected, saying GDOT and Oconee County had agreed to allow a driveway and median break in 1997 in exchange for right of way for roads. That agreement was reaffirmed in 2009.

Price asked Boswell and State Transportation Board Chairman Rudy Bowen to deliver copies of those agreements to GDOT, state documents show. Citing those agreements, GDOT Chief Engineer Meg Pirkle overruled the agency’s district staff and granted Price’s request for the median break.

In April, Boswell said he did not lobby for the highway access Price sought. He said his only involvement was delivering the previous agreements so GDOT could review them.

Pirkle said Boswell’s involvement was not a factor in her decision.

Last week’s inspector general’s report confirms the accounts of Boswell and Pirkle. It found Pirkle initially received the documents from Bowen, not Boswell. It said Bowen does not have a financial connection to Price or the shopping center property.

Boswell later met with Pirkle and GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry to deliver another copy of the documents. The report said the meeting came “before (Pirkle) had officially conveyed her final decision” about the highway access.

Boswell told an investigator he believed McMurry was aware of his business relationship with the property owner. Pirkle told an investigator she was not aware of Boswell’s business relationship with the property owner until after she had made her decision.

Pirkle said she overruled the district staff because of GDOT’s prior commitment to allow the median break. The district engineers told the inspector general’s office they were not aware of that commitment. All the parties described the decision to allow the median break “as a routine matter that did not raise alarm,” the report said.

The inspector general found that “GDOT employees acted appropriately and professionally, and that the highway design decision was made without undue influence.”

Taylor, the Oconee County resident, still thinks Boswell should not have been involved, given his financial interest in selling property at the shopping center.

Georgia’s Code of Ethics says members of state boards should “never take any official action with regard to any matter under circumstances in which he knows or should know that he has a direct or indirect monetary interest in the subject matter of such matter or in the outcome of such official action.”

But the inspector general has no jurisdiction over the State Transportation Board, which is part of the legislative branch of state government. The report said it “limited its findings to the actions of the relevant GDOT employees overseeing the highway project at issue.”

William Perry, founder of the group Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said the inspector general report does not answer all his questions about the involvement of State Transportation Board members in the case. Among other things, he wants to know why Boswell and Bowen were involved at all.

“The conflict of interest (for Boswell) in this just stinks to high heaven,” Perry said.

It’s not clear if the shopping center in question will ever be built. In May the Oconee County Board of Commissioners rejected Price’s request for a zoning change for the property.