Release of Final Europe Trip Cost Takes Three Months

September 26, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveFor South Carolina taxpayers, the manner in which the total cost of a state economic development trip to Europe in June finally has come to be known might be more important than the $231,500 bill.

Gov. Nikki Haley and 27 other state and local officials went on the overseas excursion, attending the 49th International Paris Air Show.

From the capital of France, Haley and a handful of the other officials traveled to Germany for activities that included visiting BMW headquarters in Munich.

No jobs for the state as a result of the taxpayer-funded junket have been announced.

Still, Haley’s office defends the trip as a good investment that will pay dividends for the state’s economy.

“She expects more job announcements in the future from her economic development trip to Europe, and she believes such efforts pay off handsomely for workers and taxpayers in our state,” Haley press secretary Rob Godfrey recently was quoted in other media reports.

At least for now, then, taxpayers have nothing to show for the $231,500 cost of the trip, which featured high-end hotels, ritzy restaurants and a $30,000 gala extraordinaire to court business executives.

The S.C. Department of Commerce spent nearly $158,000 of the total, according to documents the agency released in response to an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request from The Nerve.

Eight regional economic development groups in the state that receive public funding accounted for most of the rest, spending $8,000 each for a combined $64,000, the Department of Commerce records show.

However, for taxpayers, the public, state lawmakers and others, perhaps more crucial than the money is the method by which Haley’s office and the Commerce agency disclosed it – or, more accurately, did not reveal it until now.

In fact, Haley’s office never did report the total cost, instead leaving it to Commerce – an agency of her Cabinet – to do so.

Indeed, the entire process of how the tab ultimately was divulged serves as a cautionary tale for folks who try to obtain information from the government: Prepare to be stalled, stonewalled and strung along – and to fork out a hefty chunk of change to actually get it.

In this case, it took The Nerve almost three months, two Freedom of Information Act requests and a check for $270.

Initially it was going to cost $765.

This odyssey began before the Paris Air Show took place June 20-26 at the historic Le Bourget airport.

Seven to 10 days prior to then, The Nerve submitted written questions to Godfrey and former Commerce spokeswoman Kara Borie seeking the overall cost of the trip, including the Germany leg of it, and other information about the overseas expedition.

Godfrey did not respond.

Borie did not reply, either. But she did go on the trip, at a cost of $6,181, according to the Department of Commerce documents.

How is that agency’s public information flack attending the Paris Air Show a justifiable use of state tax dollars?

Better yet, was it really necessary for everyone in South Carolina’s 28-member armada to go, including two mid-level Haley staffers, eight Commerce personnel (two interns among them), and one State Ports Authority official?

Not just rhetorical questions, for sure.

Meanwhile, after the inquiries were met with the sound of silence from Godfrey and Borie, The Nervesubmitted FOIA requests to Haley’s office and Commerce on June 29 seeking the cost and other trip information.

A little more than three weeks later, Haley’s office produced records showing just approximately $8,000 in airfare and about $540 in meals.

The Nerve reported on those and other facts in an exclusive Aug. 2 story that was the first publicized account of some of the details of the trip.

But what of the other $223,000 in expenses?

“Many of the records you have requested may be found at the Department of Commerce which organized and sponsored the trip,” Haley’s chief legal counsel, Swati Patel, said in a written response accompanying the documents.

Haley’s office charged a nominal $8.30 for them.

Commerce, on the other hand, wanted an up-front $765 deposit to search for the requested information.

The agency’s chief legal counsel, Karen Manning, said the fee – $45 per hour and 25 cents per page – stemmed mostly from The Nerve asking for email and text messages related to the trip.

When The Nerve deleted that part of its request to the agency, Manning quoted a revised fee of $270.

That was in a letter postmarked Aug. 10, six weeks after The Nerve submitted its FOIA requests.

The Nerve received the letter the following week and mailed a $270 check to Manning the week after that, then once more played the waiting game.

As this process was dragging along, the Charleston Post and Courier reported on Sept. 4 that the trip to Europe cost more than $127,000 but a final tab was still being tallied.

The next week, Manning said Commerce would respond to The Nerve’s FOIA request the following week after the agency had collected some expense figures that remained outstanding.

That week came and went with no response from the department, though.

Then, three months on from the Paris Air Show and almost that long after The Nerve submitted its request to Commerce under the state’s open-records law, the agency finally coughed up the information – in an email after business hours Thursday at two minutes shy of 7 p.m.

“Your deposit will be returned bc (because) the info has been compiled and will be shared with The Nervein response to your request and to the (other) media outlets who have an interest in the final costs of the Air Show and mission” to Germany, Manning said in an email earlier that day.

The moral of the story: If you are undertaking an FOIA request, bring your “A” game – “A” as in war of attrition – and your wallet.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.