Oversight of State Plane Use Not Addressed During Panel Hearing

January 9, 2013

Investigative Reports

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AirplanesThe head of the agency overseeing the use of state planes asked a legislative budget-writing panel Tuesday for more money for next fiscal year, though lawmakers didn’t discuss the lack of oversight concerning the aircraft.

A joint investigation by The Nerve and WLTX-TV in Columbia, published in October, found that no one at the state level is tasked to ensure that travelers are making legitimate use of the two state planes under the jurisdiction of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission.

Among the main findings:

  • 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.

A review by The Nerve and WLTX of Aeronautics Commission summary reports of state plane flights from Sept. 1, 2011, through Sept. 30, 2012, found that Gov. Nikki Haley, state lawmakers, Clemson University officials and others collectively took at least 118 mostly round trips at a total taxpayer cost of more than $215,000.

Clemson accounted for about $89,000, or 41 percent, of the total cost, the single-largest percentage among all travelers, followed by state lawmakers who, as a group, accounted for nearly $60,000 of the total, records show.

Haley took at least 25 in-state trips on state planes during the period at a total cost of about $29,000, the review found. She earlier agreed to reimburse the state $9,500 after learning that a state budget proviso banned her from using the state planes for bill signings and press conferences.

At Tuesday’s meeting before the House Ways and Means Legislative, Executive and Local Government Subcommittee, Paul Werts, the Aeronautics Commission’s executive director, acknowledged that Clemson remains “a very good customer.”

Last year’s findings by The Nerve and WLTX were corroborated Tuesday by Werts, who told the panel that the Governor’s Office used state aircraft 26 hours out of 250 hours, with legislators and Clemson accounting for 57 hours and about 150 hours, respectively.

“We’re there to provide a service,” said Werts, “and we’re providing that service, whoever it is.”

Clemson’s travelers included President James Barker and head football coach Dabo Swinney, The Nervereported earlier. A Clemson spokeswoman said then 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, creating scheduling conflicts and, thus, the need to use the Aeronautics Commission’s planes.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, the subcommittee chairman, asked Werts why the University of South Carolina could not house its airplanes with the Aeronautics Commission’s planes at Columbia Metropolitan Airport to generate revenue for the commission.

A USC spokesman earlier told The Nerve that 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.

“Anytime you bring everybody collectively together, you can do something efficiently,” Werts replied, adding that Columbia Metropolitan Airport provides several safety measures that are not offered at the Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport in Columbia, where USC typically keeps its planes. Ultimately, he said, the decision of where to house USC’s planes rests with the university.

Merrill and fellow subcommittee member Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, were hesitant to approve Werts’ request for an additional $555,000 for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, with Merrill asking Werts to return with a more detailed explanation for $425,000 of the requested amount. The subcommittee, though, adopted many of the Aeronautics Commission’s budget provisos as amended.

In its proposed fiscal 2014 budget filed last year with the Office of State Budget, the agency requested an additional $425,000 in nonrecurring state funds to repave the hangar apron and taxiway used by the state planes at Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

The commission’s total budget request for next fiscal year, which includes general, other and federal funds, is $7,854,655, an increase of more than $1.9 million, or 32.5 percent, over this fiscal year’s “actual” budget, records show. Most of the requested increase – $1.35 million – would come from federal funds allocated to counties and for “other operating” expenses, according to documents.

The governor’s proposed executive state budget for next fiscal year also would increase the commission’s total budget, but at a slightly lower amount –$7,819,655 – than requested by the agency, records show.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.