Total Cost of Paris Air Show, Germany Trip Still Unknown

September 13, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveThe total taxpayer tab for Gov. Nikki Haley and more than 20 other South Carolina officials to attend the Paris Air Show in June remains unknown nearly three months after the event.

The S.C. Department of Commerce, which planned the overseas trip, is still compiling expenses to determine the final cost of it, according to the agency’s chief legal counsel, Karen Manning.

The air show took place June 20-26. From that event, Haley and some of the state’s other representatives visited Germany in what they couched as an economic development mission.

This much appears certain: The cost of the trip for South Carolina taxpayers is far higher than what was shown in records Haley’s office released in response to an open-records request from The Nerve.

Under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, The Nerve submitted requests to Haley’s office and the Department of Commerce on June 29 seeking the total taxpayer cost of the excursion and other information about it.

In both cases, their responses raise important questions about taxpayer-funded entities charging fees to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, and whether government agencies take steps on the front end to ensure that information is easy to disclose when people ask for it.

In its response, Haley’s office released 83 pages of records on July 22 at a cost of $8.30 (10 cents per page).

However, the documents, some of which are duplicates, reveal only a slight fraction of the total cost of the junket – approximately $8,000 in airfare and a minimum of about $540 in meals.

The Nerve reported those and other details gleaned from the documents in an Aug. 2 story. (Several recent reports by other media outlets to the contrary, that Nerve story was the first published report on the details of the European expedition.)

It included the fact that two mid-level Haley staffers – Taylor Hall, who is Haley’s Cabinet liaison, and Rebecca Schimsa, who is an assistant to Haley’s chief of staff, Tim Pearson – and former Commerce flack Kara Borie went on the trip.

In addition to incomplete expense information, much of the state delegation’s schedule for the trip was blacked out on itineraries Haley’s office provided. The Nerve asked for the itineraries as part of its Freedom of Information Act requests to Haley’s office and Commerce.

In a written response accompanying the records, Haley’s chief legal counsel, Swati Patel, cited sections of the FOIA that allow “proprietary information” related to “economic development or contract negotiations” to be kept confidential, along with materials “relative to efforts or activities of a public body to attract business or industry to invest within South Carolina.”

Patel also said in her response, “Many of the records you have requested may be found at the Department of Commerce which organized and sponsored the trip.”

The Commerce agency, meanwhile, has yet to comply with The Nerve’s Freedom of Information Act request.

Neither Haley’s office nor Commerce has been particularly forthcoming about the intercontinental trip.

Haley press secretary Rob Godfrey and Borie did not respond to emailed questions from The Nerve for a June 16 story about the state’s delegation bound for the Paris Air Show and the Germany leg of the trip.

Godfrey also did not reply to an inquiry for the Aug. 2 story, or to emailed questions for this report.

In a July 21 written response to The Nerve’s FOIA request to Commerce, attorney Manning said the agency would search for the records sought upon receiving a check for $765.

The state’s government sunshine law allows public bodies to charge “reasonable” fees to search for and copy documents, but doing so is not mandatory. The statute also allows a public entity to waive such fees if it determines that doing so “is in the public interest because furnishing the information can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.”

The Nerve asked Haley’s office and the Department of Commerce to waive any fees related to its FOIA requests.

In opting not to, the Commerce agency’s “fee schedule” includes $45 per hour for search time and 25 cents per page for copies, Manning wrote.

“We estimate that we will spend a minimum of 17 hours (approximately 2 hours for each Commerce employee in Columbia who attended the Air Show and the economic development mission and approximately 7 hours for the (agency’s) SC European Office,” Manning said.

“The cost of copies and postage will be in addition to the costs for searching and may be significant given the breadth of your request.”

In its requests, The Nerve asked for copies of records showing the names of the state’s delegation members, their itineraries, all individual expenses for the trip, what the money was spent on, and all email and text messages related to the trip sent by and received from state-issued devices.

The Nerve replied to Manning by email informing her that Haley’s office had complied with the FOIA request for $8.30, and asked again that Commerce waive its $765 fee.

“This was a Commerce planned trip in coordination with our European Office,” Manning responded. “We must search for records that span over a period of 6 months or more. The Governor’s Office understandably does not have many records bc (because) they did not plan or pay for the trip.

“The estimated cost for searching for responsive records is a fraction of what it will actually cost Commerce in lost productivity to respond to this request and we think it is more than fair.”

In additional correspondence, Manning said the $765 fee was attributable mostly to the inclusion of emails and text messages in the request.

So, The Nerve asked her to delete that part of the request, and Manning came back with a revised fee of $270.

A check for that amount was mailed on Aug. 26.

It was received Aug. 29, Manning said in an email Friday.

“We will respond to your FOIA request next week after our European Office has received and submitted to us the final costs that remain outstanding,” she wrote. “We do not expect to have those final costs from Munich until midweek.”

For now, that leaves the total taxpayer cost of the trip unknown to the public.

The Charleston Post and Courier recently reported that it was more than $127,000.

But expenses from the trip were still being tallied, the newspaper reported, citing information provided by Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt.

Moreover, the $127,000 figure accounts for spending only by Commerce, and the agency covered many but not all of Haley’s expenses, according to the Post and Courier.

Thus, nearly three months on from the European economic development foray, South Carolina taxpayers still have not been fully told how much it cost them.

That not only keeps questions alive about the dollars, but also raises questions about the sense of a government entity charging a hefty fee to comply with a freedom-of-information request when the salaries of the personnel involved in doing so are paid by taxpayers.

Is a fee a punitive response to discourage FOIA inquiries and keep information under wraps?

And do public entities not organize information in ways that make it easy to disclose?

Your call, taxpayers. Your call.

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