Ports Authority Spends 29K on Panama Trip

January 26, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveAt least $29,000 was spent on a three-day trip to Panama last September sponsored by the S.C. State Ports Authority, and that included five state lawmakers on a commission overseeing the authority, according to documents obtained by The Nerve.

The stated purpose of the trip was to promote South Carolina ports to Panama Canal officials. But there are a number of unanswered questions, including why two of the lawmakers who went stayed an extra day in the Central American country.

Among other things, the more-than 100 pages of documents, which were provided by the Ports Authority under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, show that during the Sept. 22-24 trip:

  • The group of 24, which included Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern and other board members, Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome, and representatives from five companies, spent most of the one scheduled full day of the trip on tours of the Panama Canal area or traveling to tour destinations, according to their itinerary. One 90-minute formal meeting was scheduled with Panama Canal authorities in the morning; another 90-minute reception with canal officials was scheduled for the evening.
  • Two lawmakers who went on the trip – Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, and then-Rep. Harry Cato, R-Greenville – spent an extra day in Panama, though documents provided to The Nerve provided no explanation as to why. Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller told The Nerve on Tuesday that Sandifer and Cato stayed behind an extra day after Sandifer suffered an injury, though Miller said he didn’t have any details on how it occurred, and the two lawmakers didn’t respond to The Nerve’s request for interviews.
  • The other three lawmakers who traveled with the group were Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley; Sen. Phillip Shoopman, R-Greenville; and Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter. All five lawmakers are or were members of the Ports Authority Review and Oversight Commission, which is required to screen board candidates and conduct oversight reviews of the authority at least once every two years. Grooms was chairman of the oversight commission last year; Cato, the then-House speaker pro tempore who lost his re-election bid last year, was the commission’s vice chairman.
  • Grooms, who also is the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, reimbursed the Ports Authority $1,490.47 for his trip expenses with a check drawn on his “Grooms for Senate” account, according to a copy of the check provided with the documents.
  • Nearly $1,600 was spent by the group, or at least $62 per person, on one dinner at a private club in Panama.  Newsome’s tab at the Marriott Panama, where the group stayed, included about $148 for another dinner and drinks for some members of the group.
  • Another $1,440 was spent on books on the Panama Canal for the 24-member group, and $120 was doled out for flower purchases.
  • Besides covering most of the trip costs for the seven-member legislative group, which included two staffers, and eight Ports Authority staffers and board members, the Ports Authority also paid airfare and hotel costs for a representative of a Washington lobbying firm that represented the authority last year, and a senior vice president at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, Miller confirmed. The other private parties paid their own expenses, he said.

In a written response Monday to The Nerve, Miller said the total trip cost to the Ports Authority was about $29,400, not including certain individual “ancillary” expenses, such as parking charges. But a precise final tab was not provided.

One of the documents provided to The Nerve listed total trip costs at about $28,000, though it didn’t specify flight costs for most of the lawmakers and two legislative staffers. Another document listed total trip costs for the legislative group at about $10,500.

Miller said all of the trip funds were provided “through the Ports Authority’s operating accounts, i.e., revenues from our customers, who also are customers of the Panama Canal,” adding that the agency receives no state appropriations for general operations.

‘Implication of Instability’

The purpose of the trip was to “promote South Carolina and her shipping capabilities to port and maritime leadership in Panama,” and to allow the Ports Authority board and legislative oversight commission to “see firsthand how this project relates to our capital plan.”

Contacted last week, Sen. Shoopman told The Nerve that Ports Authority officials approached the oversight commission about the trip, contending it was necessary to repair a perception among canal officials of a “disconnect” between the Ports Authority and former Gov. Mark Sanford, who battled with the agency during Sanford’s administration.

“It gave the implication of instability,” Shoopman said, noting that during his visit he noticed that canal officials  “didn’t even have our port on their map.”

Still, Shoopman acknowledged that he wondered at first, “Why do you want me to go down there for 33 hours?”

Shoopman said he didn’t know why Sandifer or Cato stayed an extra day in the country. Sandifer, Cato, Grooms and Weeks did not respond last week to written or phone messages left from The Nerve.

Asked if he believed if going on a trip paid for by the Ports Authority posed a potential conflict of interest for the oversight commission, Shoopman replied:  “I hadn’t thought about it. … We can’t veto any decisions they (the Ports Authority) make. All we do is tell them, ‘We want you to tell us what’s going on.”

Asked the same question, Miller replied: “Again, the Ports Authority was most open and forthright about this trip and welcomed media attention both before and after the visit. A fair look at the agenda reveals a rather intense and compact educational and promotional visit.”

Miller said he was not aware of any other trip involving oversight commission members or other lawmakers “where expenses were paid by the Ports Authority.” He cited a state law that requires the Ports Authority to pay for commission expenses, though the law doesn’t address overseas trips.

Half of the 10-member commission did not attend the trip. Contacted last week by The Nerve, commission member Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, said he didn’t believe it was necessary for him to go.

“I’ve seen the Panama Canal, and I’ve taken a good tour of the Panama Canal,” said Harrison, the House Judiciary Committee chairman. “You don’t need to see that to understand (what’s going on) if the canal is widened and deepened.”

The Port of Charleston is competing with ports across the country for more and larger ships that are expected to move through the Panama Canal when a third set of locks is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

Miller said the expansion project is the “single biggest project impacting international trade flows since the advent of modern container shipping in 1956,” adding that the Port Authority’s 10-year, $1 billion capital plan is “very much related to this project.”

S.C. Ports Authority officials want to deepen the Charleston port to 50 feet from 45 feet, compared to a planned dredging at the Port of Savannah to 48 feet from 42 feet, according to published reports.

But Georgia is ahead in the federal clearance process; the Palmetto State has been struggling to find approximately $400,000 in federal funds to be used toward a feasibility study on deepening the Charleston port.

The Charleston port-deepening project, if approved, is projected by Ports Authority officials to cost about $300 million, according to agency statements.

Lawmaker Costs

Originally, oversight commission member Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was scheduled to go on the Panama trip but dropped out, according to documents provided by the Ports Authority.

His airline ticket, however, was non-refundable, and his hotel reservation could not be cancelled because it was too late, so those charges were incurred, documents show.

Including Leatherman’s costs, $10,433.28 was spent on the legislative group who went on the trip, which included a House staffer and a Senate staffer, according to documents. That worked out to $1,490.47 per person, the amount that Grooms reimbursed the Ports Authority.

Based on that amount, the cost of the trip for the five lawmakers was $7,452.35. But that figure didn’t include the extra night’s stay for Sandifer or Cato; the base room charge at the Marriott Panama was $143.63 per night, according to documents.

Miller told The Nerve in his written response to questions about Sandifer and Cato that as the legislative delegation gathered at about 4 a.m. on Sept. 24 for the return flight, “Rep. Sandifer was not down in the hotel lobby because he was injured in his room,” though he said he didn’t know how the lawmaker was injured. Sandifer was accompanied by Cato and House staffer Andy Fiffick, who flew home the following day, Miller said.

One of the documents listed the trip costs for the entire group at $27,698.89, including $8,620.54 in hotel charges. Miller told The Nerve that the Ports Authority paid for flights for 16 people, adding that Sen. Grooms reimbursed the authority for his flight and that Stern, the Ports Authority chairman, “covered his own flight.” The flight cost for each member of the legislative group was $879.70, according to one document.

Eight people representing five companies also went on the trip. Miller said the Ports Authority covered the airfare and hotel costs for a representative of Strategic Marketing Innovations (SMI), a Washington, D.C., lobbyist firm that, according to the U.S. Senate’s federal lobbying database, represented the Ports Authority last year; and a senior vice president of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Asked why the Ports Authority covered those two individual’s travel and hotel costs, Miller replied that they were “invitees of the Ports Authority and, as such, the SCSPA covered their expenses.”

The other four companies represented on the Panama trip were:

  • TBC Corp., a Florida-based wholesale and retail tire company that, according to published reports, is building a 1.1-million-square-foot distribution center near Summerville;
  • Rockefeller Group Development Corp., a New York-based commercial real estate development and management firm;
  • MeadWestvaco Corp., a global packaging company based in Richmond, Va.;  and
  • Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicago-based global commercial real estate firm.

Miller described the private parties as “both allies and stakeholders in the success of our ports.”

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