COLUMBIA -- Gov. Nikki Haley asked her staff to pack up and head for Kiawah Island just before Labor Day, where they dined on Beaufort seafood stew and stayed overnight in luxury beach cottages to escape the political bubble and plan their strategy.

As South Carolinians suffer under a crushing economy with an unemployment rate closer to the Great Depression than any time since then, at least one of her critics says the first-term Republican is tone deaf and out of touch.

The $3,641 retreat, held from the afternoon of Sept. 1 until the morning of Sept. 2 and paid for with campaign cash, is the second time since June that Haley's travel has conflicted with her pledged financial values and raised questions about her priorities.

However, others such as Patsy Cisneros, owner of the California-based Corporate Icon and Political Icon, an image development company, see such retreats as useful and productive breaks from office routine.

As for professional development, "It is best to be in a retreat environment," Cisneros said. "You're not interrupted by the phone calls and thinking, 'I've got to get to this paperwork.' "

The Post and Courier revealed earlier this month that the governor spent $127,000 on an economic development swing through Europe that so far has not landed any jobs. On the trip, Haley, her husband, who paid his own travel

expenses, and a team of state recruiters stayed at five-star hotels, spent time at the French presidential palace and had cocktails at the Paris Ritz.

Business as usual?

Haley is not the state's first governor to hold a staff retreat outside of the capital city. Her predecessor and one-time mentor Gov. Mark Sanford, also a Republican, invited his staff to Coosaw, his family's farm in Beaufort, where they cooked hamburgers and hotdogs on the fire pit and slept in sleeping bags.

Chris Drummond, Sanford's former communications director, said he couldn't recall how the retreat was paid for.

"There were grocery bags coming out of the back of the trucks," he said. "It was very, very casual and informal."

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges said he never held a staff retreat. His staff meetings were held in the governor's office, Hodges said.

The late Gov. Carroll Campbell held staff get-aways every year, said Bob McAlister, Campbell's chief of staff. McAlister said he could not recall the details of where the staff stayed other than it was on Santee Cooper property on the lakes. Campbell served from 1987 to 1995.

"You've got to get away from the pressure of the governor's office," McAlister said. "That is very common. It is useful and it should not be criticized."

McAlister said he could not remember how Campbell paid for the retreats, but he applauded Haley for using campaign funds.

"If Nikki paid for it out of campaign funds, then it's nobody's business," he said. "If she wants to take the staff to Kiawah, more power to her."

Haley's public schedule released by her office says nothing about the retreat, but lists a series of economic development calls during the time the retreat was held.

What was on agenda

The governor's press secretary, Rob Godfrey, said Haley juggled the calls while spending time with her husband, Michael, and the 17 members of her staff who attended. The purpose of the retreat was for the staff to chart their plans for the rest of the year and the 2012 legislative session. They also talked about the governor's executive budget and Haley's upcoming town hall meetings, Godfrey said.

The retreat was a success, in part because of the escape it provided from the Columbia political scene, Godfrey said.

"Like many organizations, we think staff retreats are useful and productive, and we will very likely have more of them," he said.

The governor's office rented four cottages in Kiawah's Cassique community, promoted online as featuring luxury amenities that make the perfect spot to entertain guests, socialize with friends or host a corporate retreat. A spokesman for the Kiawah Island Club said rates vary for events and declined to provide specifics about Haley's retreat.

The guests had Beaufort stew and banana pudding with wine and beer for dinner, catered by the Beach Club.

A perception problem?

State Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said the trip sends the wrong message, especially in a state with double-digit unemployment. Haley stood by when the state Department of Education rejected $144 million for public schools and allowed her Cabinet agency to slash Medicaid benefits for women and children, Harpootlian said.

"She cut everybody's standard of living but hers," he said. "Now, she's using campaign funds to take a luxury trip to Kiawah Island. It gives the appearance she doesn't care about the average South Carolinians, but I think it's more than an appearance."

Harpootlian said the governor's use of campaign money on a retreat for employees who are paid with tax dollars raises questions. State Ethics Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden, however, said state law allows public officials to use campaign cash toward their official elected responsibilities.

Patsy Cisneros said a trip on a swanky get-away can look insensitive, but a little pampering for employees can make them feel appreciated. Plus, Cisneros said expensive destinations have been hit by the economy like everywhere else, and a staff retreat could bring them much-needed money. Staff retreats are common in the business and political world, she said.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her at twitter.com/yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog at postandcourier.com/blogs.