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$300,000-Plus Spent on European Junkets; No Known Results

If state taxpayers want to know what they received for the more than $300,000 spent by Gov. Nikki Haley and others on advertised economic development junkets to Europe last year and in July, they’ll have to keep waiting.

The Nerve last week sent written questions to Haley, S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt and officials with seven taxpayer-supported regional economic development groups, which were represented at one or more of the trips, seeking specifics on any deals that might have resulted from the high-profile events.

The junkets included trips to the Paris air show and stops in Germany during the week of June 20-26, 2011; and another air show event in Farnborough, England, near London the week of July 7-13.

Neither Haley nor the other officials responded to The Nerve’s inquiries last week. Commerce spokesman Alex Clark replied on Hitt’s behalf, though he didn’t provide specifics as requested.

“While many deals are broached during the Farnborough Air Show each year, and sometimes a presence at any trade show can help close a deal, the main purpose is to open opportunities for new businesses,” Clark said in his written response.

“The air show is not about finalizing deals necessarily; instead, it provides a unique opportunity for the delegation to put South Carolina on a world stage and meet with future customers,” he continued. “Today, South Carolina is home to more than 180 aerospace-related companies investing billions of dollars in the state each year and employing over 20,000 South Carolinians.”

South Carolina’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, though. Figures released Friday by the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce showed it rose slightly in July to 9.6 percent – tying with North Carolina as the fifth-highest in the nation.

Clark didn’t respond to follow-up questions from The Nerve seeking the number of potential deals that resulted from the Farnborough air show, and general information about those deals. He also didn’t respond when pressed again for specifics on any deals that might have developed from last year’s event in Paris.

In documents provided last week to The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, the Governor’s Office and Commerce blacked out the names of companies that they said they met with during the England trip.

“Names of companies will remain confidential to protect the competitive nature of these meetings,” according to a summary sheet of the scheduled meetings and attendees at the event.

Haley attended 17 meetings and four receptions; between 40 and 50 meetings throughout the week were scheduled by Commerce, which typically included a Commerce staffer and a regional representative, according to the summary sheet. Haley departed two days before the air show ended, according to her itinerary.

“The emphasis is on quality of meetings, rather than quantity,” the summary sheet said.

The Boeing Co., which The Nerve in 2010 projected will receive at least a half-billion dollars in incentives for its assembly plant in North Charleston, was included in those meetings, according to records.

Commerce last month set the preliminary taxpayer cost of the England trip at $106,546. A final cost-breakdown is expected to be released this week, a Commerce attorney told The Nerve.

Big ticket items listed by Commerce included exhibit costs ($46,276); lodging ($24,487); airfare and train tickets ($19,357); and meals, baggage fees and other transportation costs ($11,000). State officials stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in the heart of London’s Westminster district; the summary sheet said Commerce had obtained group rates.

Commerce covered most of the costs of the 13-member state delegation, including Haley and her staff, according to the summary sheet, which noted that the State Law Enforcement Division and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources would reimburse Commerce for lodging and travel costs incurred by the governor’s security detail.

“Partners and sponsors,” which included Michelin’s aircraft tire division and GKN Aerospace, covered reception costs, the summary sheet said.

The total tab for last year’s week-long trip to Europe, which, besides the Paris air show, included a jaunt by Haley and others to Germany for activities that included a visit to auto manufacturer BMW’s Munich headquarters, came to $231,500, The Nerve reported then.

Haley, an attorney in her office and two security officers attended the Farnborough air show last month, along with four officials in Commerce’s Columbia office and five staffers in Commerce’s European office, records show. Hitt attended last year’s air show in Paris but wasn’t part of the England entourage.

The preliminary cost figure for the Farnborough event doesn’t include the likely tens of thousands spent on travel and lodging by 15 representatives from eight regional economic development organizations – seven in South Carolina and one representing the Charlotte area. The groups were responsible for their travel and hotel costs and air show passes, according to the summary sheet.

Based on average preliminary hotel and travel costs for the state delegation, the total tab in those categories for the 15 representatives of the other groups would be at least $48,000, a review by The Nerve found.

Last year, 13 representatives of six taxpayer-supported regional economic development organizations and two county economic development offices accounted collectively for $64,000 of the total $231,500 tab for that European trip, Commerce records show.

The taxpayer-supported economic development organizations represented at the England event last month included, according to Commerce records:

  • ·         Central SC, which serves Calhoun, Clarendon, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lexington, McCormick, Newberry,               Orangeburg and Richland counties;
  • ·         Charleston Regional Development Alliance, which serves Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties;
  • ·         Economic Development Partnership, which serves Aiken and Edgefield counties;
  • ·         Lowcountry Economic Alliance, which serves Beaufort County and had represented Jasper County until             May;
  • ·         North Eastern Strategic Alliance, which serves Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Georgetown,                Horry, Marion, Marlboro and Williamsburg counties;
  • ·         SouthernCarolina Alliance, which serves Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper                 counties; and
  • ·         Upstate SC Alliance, which serves Abbeville, Anderson, Cherokee, Greenville, Greenwood, Laurens,                   Oconee, Pickens, Spartanburg and Union counties.

Whether taxpayers footed any of the travel and lodging bill for those groups is unknown. A spokeswoman for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance told The Nerve earlier this year that appropriated state funds in past years have allowed staff at her organization to attend national and international trade shows to recruit companies.

The S.C. General Assembly for this fiscal year, which started July 1, appropriated a total of nearly $4.5 million to the above-listed organizations, excluding the Lowcountry Economic Alliance, which works out to about $746,000 per group. The funding requires a dollar-for-dollar match of private money.

The Nerve earlier reported that Sens. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, who also serves on Finance, are members of the executive committee of the North Eastern Strategic Alliance (NESA) board; while Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, serves on the SouthernCarolina Alliance board.

No state lawmakers attended the England event last month, though U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., made the trip, according to records provided by the Governor’s Office and Commerce. Leatherman attended last year’s air show in Paris on behalf of NESA, records show.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin attended the Paris event on behalf of the Central SC organization; he also attended last month’s air show, though he wasn’t representing any regional economic development organization, according to Commerce records.

Contacted Friday by The Nerve, Benjamin spokesman Michael Wukela couldn’t immediately provide specifics on the cost of Benjamin’s trip last month.

University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides also attended the England air show, records show, but university spokesman Wes Hickman couldn’t provide an immediate answer Friday on the trip cost.

Between Pastides and Benjamin, that makes at least two government officials who might have used taxpayer dollars to fly the friendly skies, but have yet to disclose how much their overseas trips cost. And whether either of the taxpayer-funded junkets to Paris and London produced any tangible returns remains questionable. 

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

 

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Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt Upstate SC Alliance North Eastern Strategic Alliance Sen. Hugh Leatherman Gov. Nikki Haley Sen. Yancey McGill SouthernCarolina Alliance Charleston Regional Development Alliance Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin Central SC Lowcountry Economic Alliance University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides Economic Development Partnership Sen. Brad Hutto