COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley should have been reimbursing taxpayers for mileage in state vehicles to her fundraising events ever since she took office, the director of South Carolina's ethics agency told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The governor's attorney disagrees with that opinion and plans to seek another one from commissioners who oversees the agency. Meanwhile, any reimbursement has been put on hold.
Haley's campaign began logging mileage to her fundraising events Aug. 26 when she publicly declared her re-election bid, campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said. He added that the campaign will begin making those payments as part of quarterly reimbursements. The Republican governor has previously reimbursed only for additional costs her security detail incurred for fundraisers during out-of-state trips, such as agents' additional hotel nights and meals.
Godfrey said the campaign's decision on the timing followed “decades-old precedent” that a governor's formal announcement triggers mileage reimbursement, based on discussions with officials at the State Law Enforcement Division, which provides the governor's security as per state law.
State Ethics Commission director Herb Hayden said state law sets no such trigger, and commission opinions dating back to 1990 clearly advise all officeholders with supplied vehicles to track mileage and reimburse for events held to raise money toward their election.
State law requires a security detail for the governor. But it also bars taxpayer funds or public equipment from being used for campaign events.
“It's not a question of when a public official announces,” Hayden said. “Whether it's the governor or local candidates, if they're provided an automobile and they attend campaign-related events, the campaign is expected to reimburse the agency for the use of that vehicle.”
By state definition, a candidate is anyone accepting money for a campaign. There's no question Haley has been raising money for a campaign. Since becoming governor, Haley has raised more than $3 million and had more than $2.4 million cash available as of her second-quarter disclosure — filed two months before she made the race official.
In an email to Hayden, Haley attorney Butch Bowers said he plans to seek a new opinion from the ethics agency's board that gives the governor an exception.
He believes the commission needs to “properly frame the issue,” due to the governor's unique security detail requirements and the “historical practice” between SLED and the governor's office, he wrote in Wednesday's email, following questions by AP.
Hayden told AP it's Bowers' right to seek another advisory opinion. However, while the governor's situation differs from candidates who drive themselves in a state vehicle, Hayden said, he continues to believe the law gives no such exception.
The commission could take up the issue as early as Sept. 18, its next scheduled meeting, if Bowers submits the request soon, Hayden said.
The March 1990 advisory opinion was issued after the then-agriculture commissioner asked for guidance for reimbursements on his state-owned vehicle. A second advisory was issued in December 1991, clarifying that there are no exceptions to the reimbursement rule, so it applied to county sheriffs too.
Hayden said he knows of no public official in South Carolina cited for using a public vehicle during a campaign event and not reimbursing taxpayers. But he said his agency's small staff lacks the resources to randomly audit campaign filings. Audits typically are done after someone complains. No complaint has been filed over mileage, he said.
Earlier Wednesday, he had some advice for any public official who has used a public vehicle during a campaign event: “It would be in their best interests to reimburse their agency as soon as possible,” he told AP.
In the email exchange later Wednesday, Bowers asked Hayden to confirm that Haley does not have to reimburse SLED currently.
“Not at this time, pending the commission's ruling,” Hayden replied.
The maximum penalty for any violation of ethics or campaign finance laws is a $2,000 fine.
Hayden reiterated that the reimbursements are required only for Haley's fundraisers, not functions she attends for others, whether they're political or not, and regardless of whether attendees end up donating to her campaign.
The issue arose after SLED confirmed last week that Haley was at a fundraiser in Greensboro, N.C., on June 27 when an agent driving her crashed into a concrete pole in the roadway. Haley and two other passengers weren't injured.
In July, Haley's campaign reimbursed three state agencies a total of $7,610 for agents' extra costs during her out-of-state fundraisers in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Godfrey said there was no reimbursement for the Greensboro, N.C., trip because that wasn't a fundraiser for her, and Hayden agreed.
Haley was slated to attend the first of a two-day fundraiser for an organization supporting North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory's agenda.
According to her second-quarter filings, Haley's campaign collected more than $40,000 from 21 North Carolina residents from June 27 through June 30.
Hayden likened the resulting donations to a politician who speaks at a Rotary Club meeting and ends up getting donations from attendees.
“Someone handing them a check doesn't make that event a campaign event,” Hayden said.
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story gave the wrong date for when Gov. Haley began her re-election campaign.