Companies’ big inauguration donations a red flag, watchdog group says

Gov. Nikki Haley and her family leave Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbia after a prayer service prior to her inauguration Wednesday at the Statehouse. Large companies’s donations helped defray the cost of the inauguration, but also raise questions about preferential treatment, a government watchdog group said.

COLUMBIA — Boeing, Michelin and other large employers that have received millions in state tax breaks donated to Gov. Nikki Haley’s inauguration fund, helping pick up the tab for the 90-minute ceremony Wednesday and the festivities that followed.

Of the 29 companies that donated more than $10,000 to the inauguration fund, six — Agru America, BMW, InterTech Group, Nephron Pharmaceuticals, Boeing and Michelin — received incentives for expansions that brought more jobs to the state while Haley was governor.

In all, organizers of Haley’s second inauguration raised $640,000 from sponsorships. The two days of events, including a family fun night and a $250-per-couple gala, were paid for without taxpayer money.

The inauguration program lists 61 sponsors, but doesn’t include every donor. Haley campaign manager Tim Pearson said the full list of contributors would be made public after the inauguration events, but as of Thursday evening it had not been released.

Unlike campaign contributions which are limited to $3,500 per election cycle, there is no limit on what companies and individuals can give to defray inauguration costs.

But large donations from companies that benefit from state tax breaks are red flags, according to government watchdog groups. John Crangle, director of S.C. Common Cause, said the contributions “create the suspicion, if not the appearance,” that companies are jockeying for favorable treatment.

Pearson said Haley’s office planned to respond to Crangle’s claims, but no one got back to the newspaper Thursday.

Twelve companies gave $25,000 or more, including Agru America, whose $39 million investment in Georgetown in 2012 was backed by a grant and tax credits; Boeing, whose North Charleston facility was backed by millions in state incentives; and Century Aluminum, which last month bought Alcoa’s Berkeley County smelting plant, one of the area’s biggest employers.

Each of the inauguration’s sponsors got tickets to all inauguration’s events, including a sponsors-only reception. The companies that gave at least $25,000 also had a lunch Wednesday with state officials, including Haley. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson.