WIS Investigates: Who's flying the friendly skies on your dime? - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

WIS Investigates: Who's flying the friendly skies on your dime?

Updated:
Governor Nikki Haley steps off NSC1, the state-owned King Air 350, for a press conference in Charleston last August. Governor Nikki Haley steps off NSC1, the state-owned King Air 350, for a press conference in Charleston last August.
  • Related LinksMore>>

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

After months of finger-pointing over how South Carolina public officials have used the state air fleet, WIS decided to take a closer look at what some lawmakers call outright abuse of tax dollars. In this five-part investigative series, WIS looked at every flight logged on the state planes since Jan. 1, 2012. We looked at who took the flight, the reason for it and how much it cost taxpayers.  

PURPOSE OF STATE AIR FLEET

The South Carolina Aeronautics Division flies and maintains two airplanes for state business. Taxpayers fund this division at more than $1 million each year. Aeronautics owns two aircraft: a 1990 Super King Air 350 and a smaller King Air C90.

The fleet is worth more than $2 million and is costly to operate. The nine-passenger King Air 350 costs $1,250 an hour to fly. The King Air C90 costs taxpayers $850 an hour to operate.

"Time is money, money is time; convenience," Aeronautics Division director Paul Werts told WIS. Werts says the state fleet can get officials to any corner of the state in less than 40 minutes from the division's hangar at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. "One may consider them perks, but here again, the time that is saved from ground travel; we can be in Myrtle Beach within 35-45 minutes. We can be in Hilton Head in 40 minutes from right here in Columbia, Werts said, "It takes you three to three and a half hours—four hours depending on traffic to get to these facilities, so yeah,  they're very much time machines."

A common misconception, according to Werts, is that most people think the governor has exclusive use of the state air fleet. That's not the case. All state lawmakers, all constitutional officers and any state agency employee may use the planes. The only stipulation: the flight must be for "official state business," according to the rules governing the plane's use.

"Under Title 55, we're to provide airplanes for state business and what a person's definition of state business may mean different things," Werts said. "Could you guarantee taxpayers that every time these planes left these hangars that they left of official state business 100 percent of the time?," Barr asked, "The agency and the division of aeronautics cannot guarantee that," Werts responded.

"We have no idea what state business is anymore, but it's gone further than it should and it's way beyond what the original intent was," South Carolina Policy Council director Ashley Landess said. Landess' group uncovered alleged abuses by House Speaker Bobby Harrell and his use of campaign money to reimburse himself for use of his personal plane.

Landess' evidence and complaint is currently under criminal investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division. The policy council thinks lawmakers are the ones abusing the state's plane fleet, "We need to take the toys away. We have no time for that and frankly, the state citizens deserve a lot better than excuses," Landess told WIS.

Abuse of the state airplane isn't new. In 1984, State Senator Jack Lindsay—a Democrat from Marlboro County—took the state plane to Tampa, Florida to watch the Super Bowl. After tax payers found out about the flight, the state charged Senator Lindsay $3,000. Lindsay eventually resigned from the Senate after a vote to expel him failed by one—Lindsay cast that deciding vote.

Then came June 2009 and Governor Mark Sanford's return from a flight from Argentina. "The bottom line is, I've been unfaithful to my wife," Sanford told reporters in the State House lobby after leaving his office unannounced days before. Sanford's admission to an affair with his Argentine mistress sparked investigations into nearly every flight Sanford took during his time as governor.

Those investigations turned up nine separate abuses of the state planes and led to a $74,000 ethics fine--the largest in state history.

In October 2012, Governor Nikki Haley repaid the state $9,590 after she took the state plane to conduct bill signings, press conferences and to tout her tax reform plans. Here are Haley's flights she repaid:

*July 18, 2011: Flew to Myrtle Beach to sign an insurance law. $1,020

*August 1, 2011: Flew to North Myrtle Beach to sign bill that created the new 7th District. $1,320

*March 12, 2012: Flew to North Myrtle Beach to kick off a "tax relief tour." $1,375

*March 13, 2012: Flew to Greenville, Columbia, Aiken, Charleston to demand lawmakers include in budget her idea to cut personal and corporate income taxes. $2,000

*August 21, 2012: Flew to Anderson to sign the Medal of Valor bill, which included the mother of a fallen soldier who pushed the bill through the State House. $1,125

*August 22, 2012: Flew to Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Greenville during a statewide press conference tour on ethics reform. $2,500

*August 23, 2012: Flew to Anderson for an Electrolux expansion celebration, then to Spartanburg to sign two anti-abortion bills. $250 repaid to cover the flight from Anderson to Spartanburg

Haley admitted she wasn't aware of lawmakers changing a budget proviso 18 months before, that prohibited using the state planes for events like those in which she repaid the state. Those flights were legal before that.

Despite repaying the state for the flights, Haley argued each was official state business, "This has made me think that if the legislature does not think that I should have access to a plane for reform efforts and for spreading the word and educating and bill signings and now I'm in decision mode of do we need a plane," Haley said at a press conference the day after she repaid the state.   

When a government official asks for a plane, Werts said his agency doesn't ask questions, they just make the flight. The determination of whether a use of the plane meets the "official state business" standard is the State Ethics Commission's job, Werts told WIS.  

QUESTIONABLE FLIGHTS

Our investigation found several instances of state lawmakers using the state air fleet to deliver speeches, as taxis to conferences and for trips to Washington, D.C.

"Here, you can make four calls and still be home for supper," Aeronautics Director Paul Werts told WIS, in explaining the reason public officials use the plane fleet. Werts' flight logs show state government calls on his agency's two planes quite often.

CLEMSON UNIVERSITY

Our investigation found the most frequent user of the state plane fleet is Clemson University's president and its administrators. Since Jan. 1, 2012, Clemson administrators logged 36 flights and cost taxpayers $131,000.

Flight records show Clemson President James Barker called for the plane multiple times to fly him from Clemson to Columbia and back for meetings at the State House. The total round trip cost taxpayers an average of about $2,000 each.

Clemson's football coaches used the state plane for football recruiting. Between Jan. 1, 2012 and Feb. 28, 2013, Clemson coaches used the state planes 17 times at a cost of $68,332. After the legislature found out about Clemson's use of the state planes, the university stopped using them for football recruiting. Clemson declined multiple requests for interviews on the university's use of the state fleet, but issued this statement to WIS:

"Prior to Feb 2011, Clemson owned two airplanes, one purchased with private funds by the Athletic Department and an older model generally used for other university official travel.  In 2011, after a thorough cost analysis, a decision was made to sell the older plane rather than incur substantial costs for refurbishing or replacing it, and to utilize charter planes whenever the athletic department's plane was not available. Clemson and other state agencies have been encouraged to use state airplanes, which is good for us and for the state. Using state airplanes is less costly for us than owning a second plane, and our usage helps the state generate revenue to offset their fixed costs of owning, maintaining and staffing flight operations. The state charges a fixed-rate fee to agencies for their usage.

Whenever the athletic department utilized state planes, the cost was paid from revenues the department self-generates. The department does not receive any state appropriations, so South Carolina taxpayers have never subsidized recruiting trips. 

According to Sports Information Director Tim Bourret, the football program has decided that it will no longer utilize state planes for recruiting purposes," Clemson public relations officer Cathy Sams wrote.  

FORMER STATE REPRESENTATIVE BOYD BROWN

In June 2012, Fairfield County Representative Boyd Brown stepped to the floor of the House to announce his resignation, "In closing, as we go our separate ways--you in your direction and me in mine." But, state flight records show, on July 12, 2012, Brown booked a one-way flight to Chicago on the state's King Air 350.

Brown declined to discuss his flight on camera with WIS, but Brown told us the purpose of his flight was to meet with a biofuel company near Chicago to discuss doing business in Fairfield County. Brown said the meeting was "last minute" and he didn't have time to book a commercial flight, so he took the state's most expensive plane to attend the meeting.

Brown's trip cost tax payers was $5,875. He admitted nothing came of the meeting.

HOUSE SPEAKER BOBBY HARRELL

Our review of flight requests show few details in the reason stated for the use of the state planes. South Carolina Policy Council director Landess said that's placing too much trust in state officials. "It's a huge problem and this is a great example of the larger problem in South Carolina," Landess said. "No one is following the rules and no one is enforcing them."

Landess thinks lawmakers and university administrators have no business charging taxpayers for flights and the only officials who need to fly are statewide officials, like the governor, "Legislators should come to and from their districts. "My guess is that most of those trips would not be judged a priority by South Carolina taxpayers."

Our investigation uncovered what Landess identified as abuse by House Speaker Bobby Harrell. Flight records show Harrell used the state plane five times since Jan. 1, 2012 to deliver speeches and business announcements in the Upstate.

On Sept. 7, 2012, Harrell delivered the opening speech at the Apple Festival in Westminster. That speech cost taxpayers $3,400. All totaled, Harrell's speeches cost taxpayers $12,105. Landess pointed to that flight as the reason taxpayers are suspicious of the use of the state air fleet. "Why does the Speaker of the House need to go speak at an Apple Festival?" she asked. "What's the benefit to tax payers as a whole for that?"

"Have you found the state airplane is being used for official state business 100 percent of the time," Barr asked Rep. Harrell, "I can tell you that's what I'm doing," Harrell responded. "Can you look taxpayers in the eye and say that a trip like that, where you're simply giving speaking engagements at a cost of $3300; is that a smart use of taxpayer money?" Barr asked, "It was important to the people in that area, it's a huge event for the folks in that area. They asked me to come and give a speech for the opening of the event and but for an airplane, I would have not been able to have been there to do that," Harrell told WIS.

The Speaker defended lawmaker use of the planes as important tools to hear from constituents, "I want to try to get around the state as much as I can. I think it's important for the speaker of the house to make himself accessible to people all over the state," Harrell said.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE TODD RUTHERFORD

House minority leader Todd Rutherford, a Richland County Democrat, ran up $5015 in flights to Washington, D.C. One trip was so Rutherford could attend a Congressional Black Caucus meeting. Rutherford took Columbia city councilman Brian Newman along, according to the passenger manifest.

Rutherford took a second flight in February to the White House for a Black History Month program. Rutherford took his wife Nadia Rutherford and a man named Randall Scott, according to the flight record.

"Can you defend those flights you took as a good public use of that money," Barr asked Rutherford. "Not only can I defend them, but I would recommend that more lawmakers look into using the state plane," Rutherford responded.

Rutherford said the plane is an important tool for lawmakers to meet groups across the state, to hear their input on public policy, and uses, like Speaker Harrell's, Rutherford said, is exactly why the planes exist. "It's just huge for all of those people and that's why they invite us places," said Rutherford. "They want us to come. They want our input and the cost of bringing everybody to Columbia is just way too expensive."

REPRESENTATIVE BAKARI SELLERS

House Democrat Bakari Sellers charged taxpayers $4,690 in flights to Myrtle Beach and to the White House. "Were those state business?" Barr asked Rep. Sellers. "Oh, of course. I was actually to go to the White House to talk about state issues. I got a chance to talk to the Chief Information Officer for the United States government about the South Carolina data breach and the hack," Sellers said.

Sellers said his Myrtle Beach trip was to meet with elections directors to talk about election law changes in response to the Richland County election debacle of November 2012. Sellers is a member of the House Elections Laws Subcommittee and said he used the information he gained from the meeting to help legislate changed to the state's election law.

"Were they state business? Of course, and those were the most efficient ways to get there." Sellers said. "Is there abuse? Yes. And, do those people need to be called out? Yes. And, should they repay the state? Yes," Sellers argued.    

COASTAL CAROLINA UNIVERSITY 

In December, Coastal Carolina University President David DeCenzo took his family to watch a CCU football championship game in Virginia. DeCenzo booked the most expensive state plane for the flight, which cost $3,500 to make the trip. DeCenzo, through his public relations office, declined to interview with WIS about taking the plane and whether there were less expensive options.

CCU's spokeswoman Martha Hunn released this statement to WIS, "Coastal Carolina University utilized the plane on December 1, 2012.The amount paid was $3,500. It was used to transport a total of eight travelers, including the President, to Norfolk, Virginia for the second round of NCAA Football playoffs hosted by Old Dominion. The plane was used because the Chanticleers won the football game in Daytona the week earlier and were informed a few days before the tournament where the team was to compete. Due to the quick turnaround, it made sense financially to utilize the plane rather than book the commercial flight tickets on such short notice."

Hunn argued the money CCU used to reimburse the state for the flight was paid for by money the university collected through vending machine, bookstore and cafeteria sales.

SOUTH CAROLINA COMMERCE DEPARTMENT

A WIS review of flight records produced by the South Carolina Commerce Department turned up 10 flights since Jan. 1, 2012 at a total cost to taxpayers of $32,595. On many of the passenger manifests filed with state aeronautics, Commerce's documented reasons for the flights: "Marketing the state of South Carolina."

"We're getting more activity, we have more work and in the future, probably more plane flights," Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt told WIS. Hitt argued that his agency has more than doubled efforts to lure businesses to the state in the last few years.

Commerce's flight records show 19 "confidential passengers" flew on the state plane in the past 18 months. Those passengers were shuttled from Columbia to airports across South Carolina, and North Carolina. "Should folks be alarmed when they see the Commerce Department using flights and confidential passengers listed on these," Barr asked Hitt. "No, it's pretty normal. It's part of our routine business," Hitt said.

Hitt explained his department agrees to secrecy when businesses look to build in South Carolina. The secrecy, Hitt said, helps the potential employer keep potential business moves out of the media, and away from competitors. Once a deal's made, those confidential passengers are made public, according to Hitt.

Hitt argued, there are times when he couldn't do business without access to airplanes. "If we have a client come to the state and we have one day with them and we have to show them three sites, you can't drive to the three sites in many instances in the time that's allotted," he said.

Last October, Hitt took an $8,250 flight to Omaha and took former Gamecock pitcher Michael Roth with him. The only reason listed on the flight disclosure form, "Marketing the state of South Carolina."  "I took Mr. Roth with me because the meeting was being held in the stadium where the Gamecocks won the championship," Hitt explained.

Hitt said Roth delivered a speech at a dinner that night, involving one of the largest site consulting groups in the nation. The purpose of the trip was to seek out potential business, according to Hitt. Since the trip, Hitt said more than 400 members of the group traveled to South Carolina to attend a meeting and dinner in Charleston.

REPRESENTATIVE BILL CHUMLEY

In March, the House Judiciary Committee heard from a nationally recognized economist during a hearing on a bill known as the "Obamacare Nullification" Act. Its author, Upstate Republican Representative Bill Chumley wanted to exempt South Carolina from participating and paying for the cost of the President's health care plan. Chumley flew Dr. Walter E. Williams, a George Mason University economist, in from Manassas, Virginia to present his opinion on "Obamacare's" impacts on the state's economy.

The flight cost taxpayers $6,390 and Democrats held press conferences to complain about Chumley's decision to have taxpayers pay for the flight.

The Williams flight led the State Senate to vote to sell the state planes in May. Chumley argued it was a small investment to potentially save taxpayers millions of dollars if the President's healthcare plan went into effect.

That flight is still under review. Chumley agrees he may end up having to repay the state for the cost of flying Williams to South Carolina.

SELLING THE STATE'S AIR FLEET

In May, the South Carolina State Senate voted 26-14 to sell the pair of state-owned aircraft that have become the center of controversy over how officials are using them. Members from both political parties cast votes to sell the planes after learning of Rep. Bill Chumley's decision to fly Dr. Walter E. Williams to the state.

Spartanburg County Representative Bill Chumley said he didn't know his decision to fly Dr. Walter E. Williams to Columbia would "blow up" on him. Chumley asked Dr. Williams to give his opinion on the impacts to South Carolina of the president's Affordable Care Act. Chumley, who never stepped foot on the state plane that delivered Dr. Williams, said he was looking out for taxpayers.

"Still today, do you stand behind that decision," Barr asked Chumley,  "Oh yeah, I sure do," Chumley responded.

Republican and Democrat lawmakers took to the Senate floor to chastise Chumley over the flight. "Just ground the plane," Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler told senators, "I'm just curious, does the state even need to own a plane? We would save tax payer dollars, the upkeep, and this abuse--if anything good comes of this, we can ground the planes and save the tax payer dollars."

"That use is for state business only," Richland County Senator Joel Lourie said on the Senate floor.

"What we were trying to do is save taxpayers millions of dollars. It just seemed like a very small amount of money to potentially stop Obamacare," Rep. Chumley told WIS.

"Many of us on both sides of the aisle were outraged by that because if we have that much freedom to make those kind of decisions and people are making--what I think are very bad decisions--then that tells you, you've got a problem," Lourie said. Lourie was part of the 24 senators who voted to sell the state-owned aircraft.

Lourie said he's never stepped on a state-owned airplane and said he wouldn't because of what he sees as the high cost of air travel. Lourie said another point that led the senate to vote to sell the air fleet was the "arbitrary" standard of what constitutes "official state business."

"It's too arbitrary, it's too subjective and what one person's definition of state business may not meet another," Lourie said, "They can do like every other South Carolinian and fly commercial and probably save the taxpayers a ton of money."

State Aeronautics Division Director Paul Werts told WIS a major argument for keeping the state planes are their use as tools for economic development. Rep. Chumley said that's exactly what he was thinking when he made the decision to fly Dr. Williams to Columbia to testify. "The use of the airplane, a lot of people tell me it's for economic development, well this is about as good an excuse for economic development I can think of," Chumley said.

The legislature spends more than $1 million each year on state aeronautics. It's an agency Senator Lourie thinks taxpayers can do without. "By the time you add it all up, it could pay for a couple teachers, it could pay for a couple troopers on our highways--it could pay to repair roads," said Lourie. "But, we certainly don't need to be acting like rock stars and flying all over the place when we could get in the car and drive and that's what people expect us to do. People expect us to live within our means."

NEXT STEPS

Although the Senate voted to sell the state planes, it would take a vote by the House of Representatives to approve the motion to sell them. With lawmakers headed back to Columbia for budget work in the next couple weeks, the decision to sell the state fleet might not happen.

WIS isn't finished working on this series. The University of South Carolina also owns two aircraft that the university's administration and athletics department use on a weekly basis. Unlike the Aeronautics Division, USC does not publicly publish flight logs and flight manifests so the public can see who's using the university's aircraft and how much those flights cost.

We've filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to see USC's flight records since Jan. 1, 2012. The university tells WIS, they're actively collecting those records for us. We'll update this story online and on air as soon as the university issues a formal response to our FOIA requests.

Copyright 2013 WIS. All rights reserved.

  • What do you think South Carolina should do with the state air fleet?

  • Thank you for participating in our poll. Here are the results so far:

    Keep using the fleet
    33%
    147 votes
    Keep the fleet, but restrict usage
    30%
    133 votes
    Ground the fleet
    2%
    10 votes
    Sell the planes
    34%
    152 votes
    I'm not sure
    1%
    3 votes
Powered by WorldNow