State Officials Mum on Costs Involved with Paris Air Show

June 16, 2011

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The NerveCall it, “Le Grande Pair-ee.”

Sometime in the next few days, Gov. Nikki Haley, Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and an unknown number of other state and local officials from South Carolina plan to pack their bags and catch an overseas flight to the 49th International Paris Air Show.

Make no mistake – the Paris Air Show is the mother of all events in the aerospace world.

In a brief letter to attendees featured in a guide to the function, Charles Rivkin, the U.S. ambassador to France, describes it as “the most international and comprehensive of all major air shows around the world.”

And, what with industry titan Boeing cutting the ribbon on the company’s shiny new 787 fabrication facility in Charleston just last week, the Paris Air Show provides a perfect opportunity for South Carolina to build on that economic development coup.

At least, that’s the rationale behind the state’s delegation taking the trip.

“I’m trying to rearrange my schedule to go to the Paris Air Show in June,” S.C. Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, said on the floor of the chamber on May 25.

“And why am I doing that?” Leatherman continued. “Because I believe with Boeing locating here, that we stand a golden opportunity – South Carolina stands a golden opportunity – of getting Boeing suppliers to locate here.”

But be that as it may, a taxpayer-funded junket to Paris? In this economy?

Granted, much is unknown about the particulars of the Palmetto State group bound for the air show, because neither Haley’s office nor the agency that Hitt oversees, the S.C. Department of Commerce, responded to questions from The Nerve seeking the details:

Who’s going? What official business will the state’s delegates conduct? How much will the trip cost South Carolina taxpayers, and what can they hope to get in return for their money?

Leatherman did not help fill in the picture, either. As Senate Finance chairman, he sits on the Budget and Control Board, a five-member panel that wields great power over the state’s purse strings.

At a Budget and Control Board meeting Tuesday, Leatherman did not answer when The Nerve asked him if he is going to the Paris Air Show. Rather, and ever the polite one, he simply said, “Thank you, sir; appreciate it,” then headed out a door and down a hallway.

The Nerve followed him for a bit and repeated the question a couple of times, but Leatherman kept walking and did not turn to speak.

In any case, despite the fact that Haley’s office, the Department of Commerce and the Senate’s budget boss apparently don’t want to talk about the Paris Air Show, certain information about it has emerged.

The Department of Commerce website says Haley and Hitt will attend.

The event, held every two years, is scheduled for Monday through June 26 at Le Bourget. Pronounced something like “Luh bur-shay,” it is a storied airport where Charles Lindbergh landed his custom-built, single-engine “Spirit of St. Louis” plane in 1927 after making history in completing the first solo transatlantic flight.

The air show guide, a super-sized 186 pages, lists Commerce as an exhibitor and “Ford Graham, Director of Special Projects” as a contact person for the agency.

On page 18 of the guide, the Department of Commerce is included among the logos of seven entities below these words: “We would like to thank the following companies for their support of the U.S. International Pavilion at the Paris Air Show 2011.”

Among The Nerve’s unanswered questions to the agency are whether Commerce is a sponsor of the pavilion, which is where American exhibitors will be stationed, and what if any costs are associated with that.

Kallman Worldwide, a trade show marketing and management company headquartered in New Jersey, produced the guide and it is available for download on the firm’s website.

“Kallman Worldwide is proud to once again be chosen by the U.S. Department of Commerce as the organizer of the Official Government endorsed U.S. Pavilion at the Paris Air Show 2011,” says a website for the pavilion.

As for the cost for South Carolina’s delegation to be present, The State newspaper reported on May 29 that, “The state anticipates paying $52,830.58 in coach airfare and accommodations for Haley, Hitt and staff members to attend the Paris event, according to the state Department of Commerce.

“(First gentleman) Michael Haley will pay his own way.”

The State also reported that Haley and Hitt and some of their staffers will spend two days at the air show and then travel to Germany for some economic development meetings.

The Nerve sought confirmation of The State’s report in the questions that Haley’s office and Commerce chose not to answer.

In a May 24 meeting, meanwhile, the seven-member Columbia City Council voted unanimously to allocate up to $6,000 for Benjamin to go to the Paris Air Show.

“Mayor Benjamin explained that this trip is organized by the South Carolina Department of Commerce and that the Central SC Alliance will represent the Midlands, the Upstate Alliance will represent the Greenville region and the Tri-City Alliance will represent Charleston,” draft minutes of the meeting say.

The alliances are public-private regional economic development groups.

Further summarizing Benjamin’s remarks, the draft minutes say, “It is the proper role for government to invest in economic development and job creation.”

Slated for council approval on Tuesday, the preliminary minutes encapsulate comments by Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine as follows: “We must be aggressive in our economic development activities. The Governor represents the State, but we must position Columbia as a destination.”

Such a purpose notwithstanding, though, some lawmakers don’t cotton to state and local government officials brokering in South Carolina’s economy, much less taxpayers footing the bill for them to do so.

“I think those are the type of expenditures that get the people back home worked up,” Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said on the Senate floor on Tuesday when Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, asked him about the matter.

Said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, in an email to Tom Hatfield, a citizen reporter for The Nerve:

“To grow our economy our focus needs to be on becoming the most free state in the nation – having the lowest taxes, the least regulation, the strongest right-to-work laws, a school system centered on parental choice and a government that limits itself to core functions. Unless and until we have those things, political huckstering will be to no avail.”

Then there’s that nagging perception thing, what the nation’s political commentariat has taken to calling the “optics” of a situation. (See New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s recent state police helicopter flight to watch his son play baseball and then have dinner with some political donors from Iowa. After a widely reported uproar, Christie and the New Jersey Republican Party reimbursed the state for the cost of him using the helicopter.)

True, a growing-South-Carolina’s-economy-and-creating-jobs venture hardly equates to that sort of thing.

But at the same time, Paris is certainly no Third World backwater.

Former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble offers another take on the issue.

Coble, an attorney with the go-to economic development law firm in South Carolina, Columbia-based Nexsen Pruet, is a registered lobbyist for Boeing. On its website, the firm claims “a ‘pivotal role’ in brining Boeing to South Carolina.”

In speaking with The Nerve, Coble emphasized that he was doing so as the former mayor of the Capital City, not in any way, shape or form on behalf of Boeing or Nexsen Pruet.

Coble offered that as mayor he attended the Farnborough International Air Show in England in 2006. He said he has encouraged Benjamin to be a part of the state’s “great delegation” to the Paris Air Show this month “because I think it’s an excellent opportunity for economic development.”

He also said he was criticized for such excursions but hastened to add, “There’s no suggestion or implication that traveling to an air show is a personal trip.”

Coble said the city has to get in the game and be on the playing field if it hopes to land a company that might be considering locating in Columbia. “If he’s (Benjamin) not there you’ll never get it.”

And of that whole perception question, Coble responded, “I think it’s all about how the media wants to portray it.” He elaborated, “I think that’s the media causing the misperception.”

South Carolina evidently is not the only state getting in the Paris Air Show game.

No fewer than 15 states will be exhibitors at the event, according to Michael Petrassi, aerospace sales manager for Kallman Worldwide. “We’ve never had that many states have their own pavilion within our U.S. pavilion,” Petrassi says.

From a different perspective in the public discourse, Columbia TEA Party chairman Allen Olson joins Coble in endorsing a publicly funded South Carolina delegation to the Paris Air Show.

“Actually, as long as it’s for economic development and trying to lure businesses to South Carolina, I think that’s an appropriate use of taxpayer money,” Olson says, qualifying his views as personal rather than representing the Columbia TEA Party as a whole.

Seems opinions on this one are as divergent as, well, the many splendored varieties of French wine.

Citizen reporter Tom Hatfield contributed to this article.

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