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S.C. Legislators Say 'No Agenda' on Trip to Turkey

Although South Carolina has a relatively small Turkish population and no major trade with Turkey, eight S.C. senators apparently thought it was important enough to go on a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to the Middle Eastern country last year.

The estimated individual $7,047 cost of the October trip was covered by a little-known nonprofit organization in South Carolina and unidentified sponsors in Turkey, according to statements of economic interests filed recently by most of the traveling senators with the S.C. Ethics Commission.

The getaway was the single-biggest gift in 2011 declared by members of either the Senate or House, according to The Nerve’s review of online S.C. Ethics Commission records.

Collectively, the projected cost of the trip was more than $56,000.

The eight senators who went on the trip were Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield; Mike Fair, R-Greenville; Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg; John Land, D-Clarendon;  Phil Leventis, D-Sumter; John Matthews, D-Orangeburg; Mike Rose, R-Dorchester; and Vince Sheheen, D-Kershaw.

Fair did not declare the Turkey trip on his statement of economic interests form filed on March 15, though he is seen on a trip video produced by the event’s organizer, the South Carolina Dialogue Foundation. For incumbent lawmakers, the annual statements, which also list their public income, were due by April 15.

Contacted initially Tuesday morning, Fair acknowledged he didn’t list the October trip but told The Nerve later Tuesday he would amend his statement of economic interests, noting, “It is my responsibility because I was invited as a senator.”

Cathy Hazelwood, the Ethics Commission’s attorney, told The Nerve that senators have to disclose the Turkey trip on their annual ethics forms.

As for the projected $7,000-plus cost of each individual trip, Hazelwood said if the South Carolina Dialogue Foundation were a registered lobbyist’s principal, it couldn’t offer the trip to lawmakers because lobbyists' principals have a $60-a-day spending limit per lawmaker.

The foundation is not listed on the Ethics Commission’s website as a lobbyist principal. Given that, “it can pick who it wants to take on the (Turkey) trip,” Hazelwood said. State law allows lobbyists' principals to extend event invitations to all lawmakers but not to select lawmakers, with the exception of legislative panels, caucuses and delegations.

The Turkey trip wasn’t the only overseas getaway taken by lawmakers last year, Ethics Commission records show. For example, Sheheen took a trip to Switzerland valued at $7,016 – the second-largest single gift last year to lawmakers in The Nerve’s review – and paid for by the American Swiss Foundation, according to his statement of economic interests. The foundation is not listed as a lobbyist principal.

Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, spent $3,544 last year on a trip to Paris, according to his statement of economic interests. The Nerve last year reported  that Leatherman was among a group of state and local officials, including Gov. Nikki Haley, who attended – at taxpayers' expense – the 49th International Paris Air Show.

Leatherman’s Paris trip was provided, according to his ethics form, by the North Eastern Strategic Alliance (NESA), a regional economic development organization serving a nine-county area in South Carolina’s northeast corner. The Nerve earlier reported that the General Assembly appropriated a total of $4.7 million for this fiscal year, which started July 1, to seven regional economic development groups, including NESA.

Leatherman serves on the executive committee of the NESA board, according to the organization’s website. NESA is not a registered lobbyist principal.

‘No relationship’ to Turkish government

The South Carolina Dialogue Foundation, which incorporated with the S.C. Secretary of State’s Office in September 2010, paid $1,047 toward each senator’s trip last year to Turkey; the projected $6,000 balance for each traveler was paid for by unidentified Turkish sponsors, Ethics Commission records for most of the senators show. (Land reported the foundation's share of his trip though not the sponsors' amount.)

The mission of the Greenville-based foundation is to “promote better understanding and closer relations between different ethnicities, races (and) cultures, including Turkish-American and American communities in South Carolina,” according to the organization’s website.

Contacted Tuesday, Akif Aydin, the foundation’s president, told The Nerve that his organization has “no relationship to a government agency, either here or in Turkey.” He said his organization has no formal paid membership but relies on donations from members, describing it as an “umbrella” group comprised of several smaller Turkish educational groups in South Carolina that have been active since 2000.

Aydin said that since 2002, the groups collectively have sent more than 100 South Carolinians, including local elected officials, clergy, business people and educators, on trips to Turkey. Last year’s trip involving the senators included visits to the country’s three largest cities – Ankara, the country’s capital; Istanbul; and Izmir – as well as to the archaeological site of the Biblical city of Ephesus, he said.

Aydin said the foundation paid for the senators’ flight to Turkey; while Turkish sponsors, which he described as individuals and groups not connected with the Turkish government, picked up most of the tab, which included lodging, meals and flight costs while in the country. Spouses of most of the senators also went on the trip, though the foundation or sponsors did not pay for their costs, he said.

The main purpose of the trip was to “give the opportunity to learn about another culture,” Aydin said. But he added a “side effect” is to “promote trade” between the United States and Turkey, noting that the senators met with Turkish business representatives in addition to visiting with government officials and local families.

The senators were selected for the trip not because of their titles per se, but instead because “they are leaders of their community,” Aydin said. However, in video testimonials about the trip posted on the organization’s website, Hutto, Land, Leventis, Matthews, Rose and Sheheen are all identified as senators. 

The testimonials gush with praise for the country and trip organizers.

“Turkey is a beautiful country inhabited by beautiful people,” Hutto says on the video. “We were so impressed by the economic development, the commitment to education ... It's a great experience."

In another video posted on the foundation's website, Hutto and Leventis are pictured smiling while waving the Turkish flag.

“I didn’t come over here with any prejudice whatsoever, but I certainly leave here with such a wonderful, favorable and warm feeling for the people of Turkey,” Land says in his video testimonial.

“As far as the Muslim faith (is concerned),” Land continues, “I certainly have no prejudice against it, but at this point, I feel very secure and have good feelings for the Muslim faith.”

Regarding Turkey’s economic development plans, Land had this to say: “I believe your objective to grow Turkey into being one of, in the top five economic powers of this world is going to be a reality because I think all of the infrastructure is in place; it seems like the educational system is working ... and I think everything is heading for a big success for Turkey.”

Just Sightseeing?

Contacted this week, Land, who announced earlier this year he is retiring from the Senate, told The Nerve that he didn’t discuss any legislation, budget issues or economic development projects in South Carolina with his Turkish hosts while on the trip.

“They were literally showing off their country, and they paid for it – except for our wives,” he said, describing the South Carolina Dialogue Foundation as “kind of like the Chamber of Commerce.”

Land said he doesn’t believe he was invited to Turkey because he is a senator, but rather because “I was perceived as a community leader.”

“Quite honestly,” the reason I wanted to go was because I’ve never been to Turkey,” Leventis, who also announced this year he is retiring from the Senate, said when contacted this week by The Nerve.

Leventis differentiated the Turkey trip from the Paris air show trip taken by other state officials last year, noting that the latter was taxpayer-funded. He also said the Turkey trip wasn’t his first overseas trip while serving as senator; he said he previously traveled to Taiwan and Greece, adding that mainly nonprofit groups covered the costs of those trips.

Although Leventis said he’s not “precisely sure why” the Turkey trip organizers wanted him to go, Turkish officials are “looking for export opportunities and what not, and probably are thinking about their profile here.”

Asked if there were any state interest in S.C. lawmakers visiting Turkey, Hutto told The Nerve: “I don’t know that there’s any state interest. There was no agenda other than to promote dialogue between the countries and friendship, and educate us about Turkey.”

Hutto pointed out, though, that legislators from Georgia and New York were in Turkey at the same time, adding that Turkish leaders might be interested in “developing relationships with nations about ports.”

Fair told The Nerve he wanted to go on the trip mainly for “the adventure of it all,” noting the highlight of the trip for him was a visit to the site of the Biblical city of Ephesus.

Fair also said he was on a “second tier of invitees” after other lawmakers declined their invitations, though he couldn’t recall which lawmakers didn’t want to go.

Rose, who other senators said helped organize the trip, told The Nerve that the he was invited by a representative of the South Carolina Dialogue Foundation to visit Turkey a couple of months after he attended a student arts contest in the Upstate sponsored by the foundation. He said his granddaughter won an award in the contest, and he introduced himself to the person who presented the awards.

He said he later met with Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, whom he noted was on a “long list of prominent South Carolinians” who previously went on trips connected with the South Carolina Dialogue Foundation. He said Cannon “recommended that I go.”

“In this case, we had no agenda but to learn about Turkey and have them learn about America and South Carolina,” Rose said. He said, though, that if the trip “helps to create jobs and trade in South Carolina, that would be good.”

The Nerve this week left phone messages for Sens. Coleman, Matthews and Sheheen seeking comment, but did not receive a response from any of them by publication of this story.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

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Sen. Mike Rose Sen. Creighton Coleman Sen. Mike Fair Sen. John Matthews S.C. Ethics Commission South Carolina Dialogue Foundation Sen. Vince Sheheen Sen. Phil Leventis Sen. Brad Hutto Sen. John Land