COLUMBIA - A legislative panel on Monday dismissed allegations that Rep. Bill Chumley inappropriately used state aircraft when he shuttled a conservative commentator from the Washington area to testify on his bill.
The House Ethics Committee voted unanimously after hearing from Chumley and his attorney for more than an hour. Following closed-door deliberations, the panel found insufficient proof that Chumley knowingly violated state law or economically benefited from the trip.
"I think justice was served," Chumley, R-Woodruff, said after the vote. "It's the right thing to do. I think the committee was extremely fair."
Asked whether he would use state aircraft again to bring someone to a hearing, he said, "Knowing what I know now, I would certainly research it further."
Chumley sponsored the March 20 trip of Walter Williams, an economics professor and syndicated columnist, from a suburban Washington airport to push for a bill that initially sought to nullify the federal health care law. The state planes' four legs - to a Manassas, Va., airport and back, to pick up Williams and return him - would have cost a paying passenger nearly $6,400, according to the state Aeronautics Commission's manifest and flight log.
Democrats immediately pounced on the trip, calling it the height of hypocrisy to frivolously spend taxpayers' money while bashing government spending. But Chumley dismissed requests that he reimburse the state, calling Williams' testimony official state business.
The complaint, filed in June by Chumley's 2010 Democratic opponent, accused him of using government resources for political purposes. In response, Chumley called the complaint itself an unsubstantiated political attack that is wasting the committee's resources.
"Everyone involved in the debate of this important legislation benefited from the input of Dr. Williams," he wrote in his response to the committee. Williams' testimony "did not directly benefit any political candidate for office, including myself."
The head of a South Carolina tea party group sent out an email calling Chumley's hearing a "witch hunt," attracting a crowd that packed the hearing. But Chumley requested the hearing after the ethics committee voted last month to proceed with the case.
Attorney Reese Boyd pointed to advice Chumley received from the committee's former attorney, who gave an opinion that the flight would not violate the law. Since state law doesn't specifically address the issue, it wouldn't be a violation, she wrote in a letter, while stressing it carried no legal weight. The committee has since put out an opinion contradicting that.
Statewide officers and legislators are allowed to use the state's two planes at no cost on a first-come, first-served basis, as long as the trips are official business. The lawmaker requesting the plane must sign the manifest certifying that's the case. A clause in the state budget specifies that transportation to and from legislative meetings does not qualify as official business. The staff attorney did not consider that clause when she formed her opinion.
Still, violating that section of the ethics law requires the legislator to know it was wrong and to benefit economically, the committee found. While the complaint accused Chumley of arranging the trip to reach Williams' fan base, Chumley testified he never went on Williams' radio show.
"He went to counsel and acted in good faith. Not only did he get the OK, he got the OK in writing," Boyd said. "He did not knowingly violate the ethics act. End of story."
Williams, a syndicated columnist and radio commentator who sometimes fills in for Rush Limbaugh, is well known for advocating state measures attempting to nullify the federal law. He spoke less than 30 minutes on a bill preordained to pass, though in a much-amended format. The compromise was worked out before the meeting began.
Williams flew solo, riding the state's King Air 350 on the way down and King Air C90 on the way back.
Chumley testified that Williams refused to fly commercially, saying it took up too much time. After hearing from the staff attorney, he said he never considered any other option for getting Williams to Columbia.