On Feb. 10, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a licensed pilot, was inducted into the South Carolina Aviation Association’s Hall of Fame during the organization’s annual conference in Myrtle Beach.
Harrell’s flight cost S.C. taxpayers $1,785, state records show. That’s because the Charleston Republican authorized the use of a state plane to fly him, his wife and the former board chairman of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission, Gregg Malphrus, to and from the event.
Since the start of last year, Harrell has approved nine state plane trips from Columbia for himself or others. But he isn’t the only lawmaker flying on the taxpayer’s dime.
The Nerve’s review of Aeronautics Commission flight logs and manifests, or passenger lists, shows that from Jan. 1, 2010, through the end of last month, legislators collectively have approved at least 29 state plane trips for themselves, staff members or others to destinations in and outside South Carolina.
The flight costs totaled $74,466, based on hourly rates set by the Aeronautics Commission for use of its two turboprop planes, one of which seats a maximum of nine passengers and the other, seven. The hourly rate for the larger King Air 350, known as “Palmetto 1,” is $1,110; the rate for the smaller King Air C90, known as “Palmetto 2,” is $850.
Because the two planes are based at Columbia Metropolitan Airport, round-trip flights begin and end there, which adds to the cost.
Unlike most state agencies, the General Assembly and the governor’s office do not have to reimburse the Aeronautics Commission for use of the state planes, Paul Werts, the commission’s executive director, told The Nerve last week.
Asked why, Werts replied: “That’s a very good question. I really can’t answer it.”
Werts said the hourly flight rates charged by the commission take into account fixed costs, such as the pilots’ salaries, and variable costs, including maintenance and fuel prices.
Werts said his office doesn’t verify whether lawmaker-approved trips are for legitimate purposes, though he noted, “Personally, I have not seen any misuse.”
But Werts acknowledged that lawmakers typically do not fully explain on the manifests the reasons for their trips, adding, “People who sign the manifests really should do a little bit better explaining.”
No state official can authorize the use of a state plane without signing a flight manifest, which lists the names of the passengers and describes the nature of the trip. The Nerve’s review found, however, that many of the trip descriptions were vague and sometimes hard to read because they were handwritten.
A state budget proviso (89.25) for this fiscal year, which started July 1, allows the governor, other constitutional officers, state lawmakers, and members of state boards, commissions and agencies, as well as their “invitees,” to use the state planes for “official business.”
“Official business” is not defined in the proviso, though it does not include “routine” transportation to and from meetings of the General Assembly or legislative committees “for which mileage is authorized.”
It also doesn’t include attending a press conference, bill signing or political function.
Failure to comply with the requirements of the proviso “shall subject a violating member of the General Assembly to the ethics procedure of his appropriate house.”
The Nerve’s review found that Harrell authorized the use of a state plane to fly his communications director, Greg Foster, and four other passengers on March 14 to “Southwest press events,” according to the trip manifest.
One of the listed passengers was Gary Kelly, though his title was not identified on the manifest. Gary Kelly is chairman, president and CEO of Southwest Airlines; he was in South Carolina on March 14 to publicly announce the launch of Southwest Airlines’ service in the Greenville and Charleston areas, according to other media reports. State plane flight logs for that day list trips to those areas.
The total cost of those flights was $1,650, Aeronautics Commission records show.
Harrell and Foster took another state plane trip to Greenville and Charleston on Jan. 13 at a total cost of $2,200, according to records. The flight manifest listed the reason for that trip only as “speed.”
Harrell authorized state plane travel last year as well. Over a two-day period in June 2010, for example, he authorized four round trips, one of which was for House Clerk Charles Reid and two other House staffers – Jeannie Potter, an assistant to Harrell; and House Sergeant-At-Arms Mitch Dorman, to attend the National Speakers Conference in Annapolis, Md., on June 18, according to the flight manifest.
The National Speakers Conference is an annual gathering of state House leaders across the country; the Maryland event last year received substantial funding from corporations, according to a Washington Poststory.
On the return leg to Greenville that day from the conference, Reid and the two House staffers were joined on the state plane by two other passengers identified as Helen T. Hill and Gary W. Edwards, who also was listed as one of the passengers for the “Southwest press events” in March, records show.
Neither Hill nor Edwards was identified on the manifest by their titles. Helen T. Hill is executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau; Gary W. Edwards is managing director of another Charleston-based tourism marketing organization, Coastal South Carolina USA, records show.
Edwards flew alone on a separate state plane flight that day to Charleston, according to the flight logs.
Efforts Tuesday to reach Edwards and Hill were unsuccessful.
This year’s National Speakers Conference was held in Charleston last month and hosted by Harrell, records show. The flight manifest for the June 18, 2010, trip to Maryland listed planning for the Charleston conference as a reason for that trip.
The other two round trips authorized by Harrell in June 2010 involved a flight for Foster and another House staffer, Brad Wright, Harrell’s attorney, to Charleston; and an unrelated bill-signing ceremony on the same day, according to flight logs and manifests.
The passengers on the June 23, 2010, bill-signing trip, which included stops in Greenville and Charleston, included Harrell; then-Gov. Mark Sanford; House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington; and Joe Taylor, former secretary of the S.C. Department of Commerce, according to the trip manifest.
According to other media reports, Sanford on June 23, 2010, was in Greenville to sign the highly touted economic development “competitiveness” bill, which, among other things, reduced the industrial property tax on warehouses located on a manufacturing site to 4 percent from 10.5 percent.
Unlike this fiscal year, state budget provisos in fiscal years 2009-10 and 2010-11 did not specifically prohibit state plane trips for bill signings, press conferences or political functions.
The total flight cost of the four trips authorized by Harrell in June 2010 was $7,726 – the highest weekly total authorized by any lawmaker last year, The Nerve’s review found.
Besides those trips, Harrell authorized a state plane to fly himself and Foster to Hilton Head and Greenville on Dec. 6 at a total cost of $2,860, records show. The reason for the trip was listed on the flight manifest only as “speaking to groups.”
In total, Harrell authorized nine of the 29 round trips since Jan 1, 2010, records show. The nine flights collectively cost taxpayers nearly $18,861, or 25 percent of the total $74,466 cost authorized by all lawmakers during the 21-month period, The Nerve’s review found.
The Nerve last week and this week attempted to contact Harrell and Foster for an explanation for their trips, but they did not respond to several written and phone messages.
Farm Show, Military Ceremony Trips
Besides Harrell, a dozen other lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats – from both chambers have authorized use of state planes since Jan. 1, 2010, records show. Whether all of the trips constituted “official business,” however, is questionable, The Nerve’s review found.
Take two trips authorized by Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, for example.
Last Oct. 20, Leventis approved a round-trip, state plane flight for eight “local ag leaders” to attend the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga., according to the trip manifest. The event is described on the expo’s website as “North America’s Premier Farm Show.”
And Leventis last month flew on a state plane with four other passengers, including Sumter Mayor Joseph McElveen and Sumter County Administrator Gary Mixon, to attend an Air Force ceremony at Langley Air Force Base near Hampton, Va., according to the trip manifest.
The total flight cost of both trips was $6,710, records show.
In interviews last week and this week, Leventis acknowledged several times that The Nerve’s questions were “valid” when asked whether it was proper for him as a legislator to authorize those flights. But he defended the trips, nevertheless.
As for sending guests to the Georgia agricultural show last year, Leventis said that “it’s something that has been done for awhile,” adding that agriculture is the “biggest single industry in Sumter County and the state.”
Leventis, who, according to his biography on the General Assembly’s website, is a decorated former fighter pilot, also defended the Sept. 13 trip to the Air Force ceremony in Virginia, which he described as a “changing of the guard” involving a four-star general. He said Shaw Air Force Base is the Sumter area’s single largest employer, and that he also has sponsored a number of bills to help military families.
“I’ve initiated a lot of legislation that has impacted military families,” he said.
Leventis isn’t the only lawmaker to take state plane trips outside South Carolina. The Nerve’s review found that of the 29 round trips authorized by legislators since the start of last year, 13 were to out-of-state destinations, mostly Washington, D.C.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, for example, authorized three trips for himself last year, one of which was a round-trip flight in October to Nashville, Tenn., for a meeting of the Southeast U.S./Japan Association, according to the trip manifest.
“Working Japanese cos (companies) to come to S.C.,” the manifest signed by Leatherman said.
The total cost of using a state plane for the Nashville trip was $4,070, records show. Leatherman did not respond to written questions submitted by The Nerve this week.
Rep. John King, D-York, authorized two trips this year to Washington, D.C. The first flight, on Feb. 15, took him and five other Democratic state representatives – Carl Anderson of Georgetown County, Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg County, David Mack of Charleston County, Harold Mitchell of Spartanburg County and Todd Rutherford of Richland County – to meet with Vice President Joe Biden, according to the trip manifest.
The second trip, on July 1, was described on the flight manifest as a “White House briefing on healthcare education and healthcare exchange.” Besides King, Anderson was the only other passenger on that flight, records show.
Contacted last week by The Nerve, King defended both trips, which, according to Aeronautics Commission records, cost taxpayers a total of $5,775 for use of a state plane.
King said the House delegation on the February trip asked Biden to speak with President Barack Obama about putting federal dollars in the president’s proposed budget toward deepening the port of Charleston, which King noted is a key part of the state’s economy.
“We felt an obligation … to do our jobs as representatives of the state of South Carolina to bring jobs to the state of South Carolina,” he said.
King said the second D.C. trip in July was necessary for him and Anderson to learn more about how to help set up a state health insurance exchange in South Carolina, which was authorized through the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which Obama signed into law last year.
Asked why he couldn’t accomplish that goal through phone calls or emails, King replied: “I think we need to build relationships with Washington. … I think I’m the person to build those bridges with the person holding the White House.”
Flying a ‘No-Brainer’
Rep. Rutherford, who went on the February trip to visit with Biden, told The Nerve last week that flying is sometimes the most efficient way to meet with people.
Aeronautics Commission records show that last month, a state plane was used on three days – Sept. 25, 26 and 28 – to shuttle Rutherford to a South Carolina Solicitors Association conference in Hilton Head and a South Carolina Public Defender Association conference in Myrtle Beach.
The total flight costs, which included four no-passenger legs because the planes had to be flown to and from Columbia, came to $4,335, records show.
“You can’t be two places at the same time,” Rutherford said, noting he didn’t have enough time to drive to the back-to-back conferences.
Rutherford, a criminal defense attorney, said solicitors and public defenders wanted to meet with him during the conferences to discuss legislative issues that interested their respective groups. He said he was a guest speaker at the public defenders conference, though he added he wasn’t paid for that.
Rutherford contended that it has been too inconvenient for members of the solicitor and public defender groups to meet with him and other lawmakers in Columbia this year. He pointed out, for example, that because of scheduling conflicts among legislators, a committee he sits on overseeing a state sentencing reform law enacted last year has met three times, though 10 meetings had been scheduled.
“I think it’s a no-brainer,” Rutherford said. “More (General Assembly) members should use it (state planes). You get a lot of interest groups making requests, and we can’t make them all.”
Werts, the Aeronautics Commission executive director, said he worries that his agency won’t have enough money to keep up with the demand for use of the state planes. He said the commission had “millions” in reserves with the sale of five aircraft in recent years, but that account now stands at $143,000.
Still, Werts said it’s better for the planes to be used than sitting in a hangar.
“I wish we could use the airplanes more,” he said. “It’s a tool to run an effective and efficient business. Like any asset or a tool, you need to use it to its fullest potential.”
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or email@example.com.