WIS Investigates: State plane disclosure forms "a joke" - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

WIS Investigates: State plane disclosure forms "a joke"

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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.
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

State law requires the State Aeronautics Division to provide air travel for the governor, statewide officials, state agency employees, as well as every member of the General Assembly. The problem for critics of the state plane use rules, there's no clear definition of "official state use."

"First of all, there aren't many details. It's hard to tell what these guys really are doing. The disclosure shown to the public are a joke," Ashley Landess told WIS.

Landess heads the South Carolina Policy Council, a Columbia-based government watch dog group.

"We don't have any idea why taxpayers are funding these trips. We don't know what the purposes of these trips are," Landess said.

Landess is referring to the flight disclosure forms that are filed with State Aeronautics when a public official requests a flight on one of the state's two airplanes. The form shows the date, time, destination of the flight, as well as who is on the plane. The form shows each leg of the flight. The form provides a space for the official to hand write the "nature of the trip" to satisfy the official state business as the reason for the flight.

But our review of the forms shows very few details.

For example, flights we reviewed from the South Carolina Commerce Department show different stated reasons for their 10 flights since Jan. 1, 2012: "Marketing the state of South Carolina," "Commerce" and "South Carolina Department of Commerce."

The flight disclosures we reviewed gave no further explanation of the details of those trips. Commerce racked up $32,595 in flights in the last 18 months.

A flight disclosure form former Rep. Boyd Brown filed for a one-way flight to Chicago on July 12, 2012 shows the hand-written reason for the flight as a, "Meeting with a biofuel company about locating in Fairfield County." Brown does not list the name of the company and would not disclose it when questioned by WIS. Brown announced his resignation from the House of Representatives weeks before he took the flight, but insisted his flight was in the public interest.

Aeronautics records show Clemson University's administration and football coaches were the most frequent users of the state planes since Jan. 1, 2012. Flight logs show 36 flights logged on the state plane for a total cost of $130,864. Clemson football coaches logged 17 flights for recruiting trips at a cost of $68,332.

Clemson coaches wrote by hand into their flight disclosures: "Official Clemson University Business," "Clemson University Business," and two flights taken in January and February showed "Clemson University Football Recruiting." Clemson stopped using the state planes for recruiting in February. After the news of Clemson's recruiting broke, the House of Representatives voted to make it illegal to use the state planes for recruiting.

Clemson's president James Barker used the state plane 29 times since Jan. 1, 2012, flight records show. Flight logs show, Barker used the plane as a taxi from Clemson to Columbia five times for trips to the State House. Barker's flight disclosures show the reasons for the trips as "Meeting with the General Assembly," "Official Clemson University Business," "Commission on Higher Education Meeting," "Talk with members of the General Assembly," and "Clemson work with the General Assembly."

"Why did they take those trips? What did we get out of the deal?" asked Landess. "I'm not interested in what they got out of the deal or what they think is important; what's important to us."

"The person who is signing for the flight is going to give a reason for the flight," State Aeronautics Director Paul Werts said.

"Some people might just put in there ‘for official state business.' Here again, we are not the enforcement agency, nor are we the people to determine the reason for the flight."

South Carolina code of laws section 55-1-90 provides guidelines for the use of the state's air fleet. The section states: "State-owned aircraft may be used by state agencies, and other governmental bodies or political subdivisions within the state for matters pertinent to, and in the normal course of business for the governmental entities."

Werts said the agency that makes the call on whether a flight meets the official state business standard is the Legislative Ethics Committees for lawmakers and the State Ethics Commission for all other state officials.

"I think people have taken way too much liberty with that and it's time to rein it in and the only way to really rein it in is to sell the planes and be done with it once and for all," Richland County state senator Joel Lourie said. Lourie was one of 24 senators to vote to sell the state planes in May.

"It's too arbitrary," he said. "It's too subjective and what one person's definition of state business is, may not meet another's," Lourie referred to what he sees as a lack of information required to reserve a state plane.

"You can fly from Washington and back for the day for less than probably $400," Lourie argued, "We ought to do like every other South Carolinian does; be reasonable and responsible, be fiscally conservative and I think we'd save taxpayers a lot of money."

MOVE TO CHANGE RULES OVER STATE PLANE USE

State Representative Gary Simrill tweeted a message after the WIS five-part series into the state plane use aired Tuesday. Simrill, a York County Republican, wrote, "We are a state that prides itself on building aircraft, yet we won't have one? Tighten the usage parameters. Keep the planes."

Simrill will participate in a budget conference committee on the State House grounds this Friday where House members and Senators will try to finalize the state budget. In May, the senate voted 24-14 to sell the state air fleet after learning a fellow lawmaker flew a witness to the State House to testify. That flight cost taxpayers $6,390.

"I will be leading that charge on Friday," Simrill tweeted in reference to taking up the movement to tighten how the state aircraft are used.

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