COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley’s chef has been barred from catering private events at the Governor’s Mansion complex and told to reimburse the state after an Associated Press investigation questioned whether he was using his high-profile position for financial gain.
Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for the governor, said Wednesday that Geoff Sandifer used state-owned kitchen appliances, linens, serving utensils and a computer for a side business, and that the matter has been reported to the State Ethics Commission.
Godfrey said the governor’s office discovered the use of state resources after looking into the matter because of AP’s inquiries.
The AP reviewed 2,000 pages of emails and other documents produced in response to a Freedom of Information request. The emails show that an aide to Haley’s husband, Michael, who oversees the mansion, recruited business for Sandifer, while Sandifer made it a point to play up his role as the governor’s chef when courting clients.
In at least one instance, that aide touted his advantages over other caterers.
The records also show that Sandifer routinely used his email account to conduct and recruit business day and night. Godfrey said there is no indication that Sandifer used food ordered on the Governor Mansion accounts.
Godfrey said Sandifer “has been ordered to stop using any state resources to conduct any non-state business. Additionally, he is no longer catering on mansion grounds and he will fully reimburse the state for the cost of using state resources.”
Sandifer, 31, who reports to Michael Haley, now has to get approval before doing outside catering work, Godfrey said. The restrictions were made Tuesday.
Godfrey wouldn’t make Sandifer or Emily Brandenburg, the mansion complex coordinator who referred business to Sandifer, available for interviews. Sandifer didn’t respond to an email or phone messages Wednesday. Brandenburg referred questions to Godfrey.
Godfrey said the governor’s office will work with the state Ethics Commission to determine an appropriate reimbursement.
State Ethics Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden said state ethics laws bar people from using their public position for financial gain for themselves or businesses with which they are associated. That includes using email accounts.
“If this is your main method of corresponding with your side business, then that could be a problem, especially if it’s on state time,” Hayden said.
Hayden said that each event Sandifer handled could bring a $2,000 fine if the work generated $50 or more for him or his business.
Connections, low costs
There were plenty of Sandifer-catered events at the Lace House, a 9,606-square foot, three-story antebellum home across a wide pathway from the Governor’s Mansion.
A typical event there costs $3,500. That doesn’t include what organizers pay for tents, entertainment, valet service or catering — typically a top expense.
Of the 28 catered wedding receptions on Lace House grounds held this year or planned for next year, Sandifer had nine. On at least seven of those, he worked with frequent partner Corey Ellsworth.
They achieved their status at the desirable location through connections and low costs. The next-most-frequent caterer there had five weddings.
And business has been good. Ellsworth owns Food for Thought Catering in Cayce and said he and Sandifer have known each other since college.
Ellsworth said he expects to finish the year with more than $100,000 in sales for the first time. “To be honest, I’ve doubled my business every year,” he said, attributing some of his success to the fact that he charges less than other caterers.
Open for business
Ellsworth described an arms-length business relationship with Sandifer, calling him “contract labor.”
Ellsworth said Sandifer had a limited role in recruiting people who rent the Lace House, because that is Brandenburg’s job. “So really, when people get a chance to hear what caterer they should pick, that’s coming from her mouth, not Geoff’s,” Ellsworth said.
And they heard plenty from Brandenburg and her predecessor, Margaret Farish.
Ivy Walker recalled Farish telling her in 2010 about Sandifer, who was working for Gov. Mark Sanford at the time. “She recommended him and said we could hire him,” Walker said. She said it was easier to take the recommendation than look for other caterers.
Brandenburg took over at the mansion in January when Haley was sworn in. Brandenburg made it known that Sandifer was open for business. For instance, Louise Michaelis recalls visiting with Brandenburg as she planned her daughter’s wedding.
“She told me about Geoff, that he was the chef at the Governor’s Mansion and that he could do the catering, also,” Michaelis said. Brandenburg told Michaelis that “we didn’t necessarily have to use him, but he was available,” she recalled.
In some emails, Brandenburg made it clear that Sandifer has advantages over other caterers at the Lace House. “The caterer unfortunately would not have access to the kitchen. They would have to bring it in unless you went with the governor’s chef, who does catering on the side,” Brandenburg told one client.
In that February email, Brandenburg also talked about saving money. “You could use the governor’s chef as your caterer, which may help you with costs vs. going with another caterer because he may be willing to work with you on your pricing vs. another caterer.”
Godfrey said that wasn’t accurate, and all caterers are allowed to use the Lace House kitchen. Meanwhile, Godfrey said it appeared that Brandenburg only pitched Sandifer once, “and she understands it’s not to happen again.”
Sandifer actively pursued clients from his government email account. In March, he asked a bride if she had chosen a caterer. “I have done and still do a lot of the on-premise weddings and wondered if you knew that and/or were interested in inquiring about my services,” Sandifer wrote.
With the new governor and change in the works around him as Farish and other staff left, Sandifer was unhappy and looking for an exit strategy. He had been hired in 2008 by Sanford.
In an email to another caterer, Sandifer said of his day job, “I don’t know how long I am going to be at the mansion due to the work environment and some other factors. And am looking into getting a small restaurant.”