Topics/Categories

Get The Nerve in your in-box every weekday morning!

Tens of Thousands of Tax Dollars Spent on State Plane Flights with No Oversight

Over the past year, Gov. Nikki Haley, state lawmakers, Clemson University officials and others collectively took at least 118 mostly round trips on two state-owned planes at a total taxpayer cost of more than $215,000, state flight records show.

A joint investigation by The Nerve and WLTX-TV in Columbia found that no one at the state level is checking to make sure that travelers are using the planes for legitimate purposes.

In fact, there’s no law requiring any oversight of that, acknowledges Paul Werts, executive director of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission, which operates two state planes at Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

“We have to provide the service,” Werts said in an interview last week. “We do not regulate or enforce their travel.”

The Nerve/WLTX investigation also found that:

  • State law spells out only a few things that the state planes cannot be used for – leaving it open to the fliers’ interpretation in many cases;
  • No state law requires flight organizers to be specific when listing the purpose of their flights on official Aeronautics Commission forms; and
  • Often, those forms, known as flight manifests, list vague information about the purpose of the trips.

S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley and the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, said this week that the findings by The Nerve and WLTX reinforce his position that the state should get out of the plane business altogether.

“I’d just as soon sell the planes,” he said. “It would probably cut down on some of the travel if they were forced to sell the planes.”

Werts, however, believes the state planes are not used enough.

“We would like to see the aircraft utilized more by legislators and the governor,” he said, noting later in the interview, “They’re time machines, and we’re here to save time.”

Werts said he doesn’t believe any public official has used a state plane for his or her personal benefit. Asked whether there should be more transparency in filling out flight manifests, he replied, “If it requires a little more detail, so be it.”

Gov. Nikki Haley recently reimbursed the state $9,500 after learning that a budget proviso banned her from using the state plane for bill signings and press conferences, according to an Associated Press story.

Werts told The Nerve and WLTX that because he didn’t review any of the flight manifests submitted by Haley, he wasn’t aware that she had violated the budget proviso.

The review by The Nerve and WLTX of the governor’s flight manifests over the past year showed that she took at least 25 in-state trips – some with multiple destinations – on state planes at a total cost of nearly $29,000.

Some of Gov. Haley’s flight manifests listed specific reasons for her trips; others gave vague purposes, such as “economic development travel” or “public scheduled events.”

A state budget proviso, which has to be renewed yearly when state lawmakers pass the budget, requires that a member of the General Assembly or state agency requesting use of a state plane prepare a “sworn statement from the highest ranking official of the agency certifying that the member’s or state official’s trip was in conjunction with the official business of the agency.”

But the proviso doesn’t define what constitutes “official business,” though it says the state planes can’t be used to transport state lawmakers to and from Columbia for legislative meetings "for which mileage is authorized," or, as amended for last fiscal year, can't be used for “attending a press conference, bill signing, or political function.”

Haley’s office didn’t address written questions from The Nerve this week about her $9,500 reimbursement to the state, or specifics about her use of commercial flights and state plane trips as governor. But her spokesman, Rob Godfrey, issued the following prepared statement Wednesday to WLTX:

“The governor, like many state officials, uses the state plane only for official business related to her duties as governor – and if the legislature doesn’t believe she should be able to do that then the questions arise of why we even have the plane and whether it’s time to look at what we can do with it to better serve the taxpayers.”

Werts said the Aeronautics Commission charges an hourly rate of $1,250 for its larger Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 plane, which seats eight passengers; and $850 per hour for the smaller King Air C90 plane, which seats six. The rates take into account fixed costs, such as pilot salaries; and variable costs, including maintenance and fuel prices, he said.

Werts said the state’s hourly rates are “definitely below the private sector’s,” though Grooms disagreed, noting he hasn’t used the state planes in recent years because he said he could drive or fly commercially at less cost.

Unlike most state agencies, the General Assembly and Governor’s Office are exempt from reimbursing the Aeronautics Commission for use of the state planes, though the commission calculates the cost of those flights, Werts said.

Asked why those groups are exempt, Werts couldn’t offer a clear answer.

A review by The Nerve and WLTX of Aeronautics Commission summary reports of state plane flights from Sept. 1, 2011, through Sept. 30 of this year found that the total cost of 118 mostly round trips – the majority of which was in state – came to $215,080.40. That works out to be $1,822 on average per round trip; the trips varied greatly in the number of included legs.

The total costs included flight legs in which there were no passengers because the planes flew out of Columbia to pick up passengers elsewhere in the state. It also included routine test flights by the Aeronautics Commission.

The S.C. Department of Commerce typically kept its passenger lists confidential, often listing the purpose of its state plane trips, which totaled $12,000 over the past year, as “economic development.” Werts defended the practice, contending that confidentiality is needed when trying to attract new businesses to the state.

Absent a state law requiring oversight, Werts said the person making the request to use a state plane should be responsible for ensuring that the trip was done for legitimate reasons.

“I think it should remain with the people who are accountable,” he said.

The Flying Tigers

Of the $215,080 total cost in state plane trips over the past year, Clemson University accounted for the single-largest percentage – 41 percent – taking at least 32 round trips that collectively cost $88,840.40. Most of the flights were in state, though there were more than a dozen trips to Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma, Indiana and New Jersey, records show.

The Clemson University travelers included President James Barker and head football coach Dabo Swinney. For most of the trips, the flight manifests filed by the university listed the purpose only as “Clemson,” “Clemson University,” “Official Clemson University business,” or “Official university business.”

In a written response to questions about a dozen of those flights this year, university spokeswoman Robin Denny said the trips were taken for a variety of reasons, including:

  • “Athletic and alumni,” athletic fundraising and donor meetings;
  • ·Picking up Swinney from “ACC football media events”;
  •  A visit by the football coaching staff to Oklahoma State University to “discuss/review football                        operations”;
  •  A recruiting trip by head basketball coach Brad Brownell; and
  • ·Two trips by Barker to Columbia to talk with lawmakers.

Denny said after the university sold one of its planes, the remaining aircraft that had been used by the athletics staff was made available to other university personnel.

“When there are scheduling conflicts, the options are to charter a plane or use the state plane if available,” she said. “The use of the state plane is more cost-effective.

“All planes are used solely for university business and primarily to enhance productivity and make the best use of the president’s and other administrators’ time.”

As for the vague reasons listed on flight manifests, Denny said the university was “asked to state that the use was ‘Official Clemson University Business’ on the flight record.”

Unlike Clemson, the University of South Carolina did not use either of the Aeronautics Commission’s planes during the past year, records show. In a written response, USC spokesman Wes Hickman said the university uses two planes – one owned by USC’s Athletics Department, and the other owned by the USC Development Foundation and leased to the university.

“The majority of fights are for development purposes and for meetings to secure research grants,” Hickman said. “Both fundraising and research funding are at all-time highs.”

The lease rate for the plane owned by the USC Development Foundation is $1,373 per hour; the aircraft cost for fiscal 2012 was $297,625, Hickman said. In addition, the Athletics Department spent $201,751 for 222 hours of flight time on its plane last fiscal year, he said.

High-Flying Legislators

Next to Clemson University, state lawmakers racked up the most state-plane flying costs – $59,625 in total – over the past year, the review by The Nerve and WLTX found.

In terms of cost, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, led the pack of 10 lawmakers who authorized flights during the one-year period, taking four trips totaling $9,500.

In October 2011, Harrell flew, along with his wife and chief spokesman, to Lexington, North Carolina, for what Harrell described on his flight manifest only as a “speaking engagement.” The total flight cost was $2,530, according to an Aeronautics Commission summary report.

Harrell took two other state plane trips over the past year to attend unidentified speaking events in South Carolina, records show. Last month, he took a state plane trip to the Upstate to speak at the opening of the South Carolina Apple Festival and to the Westminster Rotary Club, according to his flight manifest.

Harrell did not respond to written and phone messages left for him and his spokesman, Greg Foster, last week. A licensed pilot, Harrell has faced public scrutiny in recent weeks concerning his reimbursement of campaign funds for travel on his private plane to political and legislative events.

Other lawmakers who used state planes over the past year included Rep. Carl Anderson, D-Georgetown, who flew with his wife to the Manassas, Va., airport, located 30 miles from Washington, D.C., in March to attend a “critical health policy issues forum by NMA, to help state and local communities,”  according to his flight manifest.

Anderson listed no other specifics on the manifest about the event. During that time, the National Medical Association held a “National Colloquium on African American Health” in Washington, according to the organization’s website.

Anderson also flew on a state plane in March, while the Legislature was in session, to attend an unspecified groundbreaking ceremony in his district.

Total cost of both flights was $5,310, according to Aeronautics Commission records.

“I don’t feel I have violated anything,” Anderson told The Nerve on Wednesday. “In fact, what the (state) aviation folks are saying is, ‘You don’t use the (state) plane enough.’”

Anderson said the groundbreaking ceremony in March was to dedicate the rebuilding of a church in his district that had earlier burned. He said House staff advised him to take a state plane to allow him to spend more time in session then on the state budget.

“The main thing there was constituent service,” he said. “The state plane is there to aid state officials in the execution of their duties.”

As for the March trip to Washington with his wife, Anderson said the National Medical Association had invited lawmakers and others from across the country to attend the conference, noting that there are “major health problems” among South Carolina’s African-American population.

“I fight very hard for health care,” he said.

Contacted this week by The Nerve, longtime Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, defended a state plane flight he authorized last month to Bowling Green, Ky., to visit an elementary school that he said has received national recognition for its energy-conservation design.

“You interacted with the architect who designed the school; you interacted with the teachers; and you interacted with the children,” Leventis said. “You see things that don’t have anything to do with energy, but are darned good ideas.”

Seven passengers flew on the state plane, according to Leventis’ flight manifest. They included state Rep.  Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, who authorized two other state plane trips this year to the Washington, D.C., area at a total flight cost of $6,750, Aeronautics Commission records show.

Leventis, a licensed pilot who earlier this year announced his retirement from the Legislature, said he flew three other passengers in his private plane to the Kentucky school, noting he didn’t seek any reimbursement from the state for those costs.

The total state flight cost for the Kentucky trip was $4,125, which represented 44 percent of the total $9,295 for the three state plane trips that Leventis authorized over the past year, Aeronautics Commission records show.

Asked if he and others could have learned about energy-saving ideas without flying to the Kentucky school, Leventis pointed out that the University of South Carolina is using a similar plan in building a new business school in downtown Columbia. Still, he said he believed it was important to visit the Kentucky site in person.

“It doesn’t do it justice unless you go,” Leventis said.

Nerve researcher Roy Harmon contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

 

Legislative Power Trip Taxes State Agencies Higher Education Ethics Accountability Transparency

S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell University of South Carolina Clemson University Rep. Carl Anderson Gov. Nikki Haley James Barker Dabo Swinney S.C. Aeronautics Commission Sen. Larry Grooms Sen. Phil Leventis