Haley's flight rules changing

Nikki Haley

Grace Beahm

COLUMBIA -- The way Gov. Nikki Haley wrote off the cost of flying to out-of-state fundraising events was banned Wednesday by the State Ethics Commission.

The commission voted 5-0 to require that politicians, specifically Haley, stop using the cost of a commercial ticket as a substitute for the value of a ride on a private airplane for fundraising events. Flying on a private plane costs significantly more than a commercial seat, and politicians now must calculate the value by multiplying the cost to operate the plane by the number of hours it is in the air.

Haley raised more than $100,000 from out-of-state trips, most of which involved private plane rides.

The action follows a series of reports by The Post and Courier about the governor's travel.

The new rule will limit the private flights Haley can take to fundraisers and force her to take commercial flights more often to campaign or use some of the money she's collecting to pay the difference.

Individual campaign donors, including those who let Haley use their planes, can contribute only $3,500 in cash or an in-kind contribution, such as a flight, between now and Haley's potential re-election in 2014.

Changing practice

The governor's spokesman, Rob Godfrey, said Haley will follow the rules. The change won't impact the roughly 20 private plane rides Haley has taken since her election last November but will change her recording practices going forward. Not all of Haley's flights on private planes have involved fundraising. Haley took private planes for family trips, to speak at national GOP events and to visit a sick nephew and later attend his funeral. Also, some of the private plane rides were to in-state destinations.

Haley had been following the advice of an Ethics Commission lawyer and recording the private flights as the value of a commercial ticket. The commission staff had been giving out inconsistent advice on how to value the flights.

"As always, the governor will follow the laws on the books and their interpretations by the Ethics Commission," Godfrey said in a statement.

Neither Godfrey nor Haley campaign aide Marisa Crawford would provide comment about the governor's future approach to out-of-state fundraising. The decision does not apply to travel for official state business or for a politician to take a personal trip, such as a vacation or trip to attend a funeral. The governor and South Carolina's top officials have state-owned planes available at any time for official duties, including economic development.

Personal trips are recorded as a gift to the candidate, and ethics laws do not set a limit on the value of a gift. Likewise, the governor and other officials can still use private planes to fly for duties associated with their office, such as to meet with company executives to make a job-creation deal. Those flights are considered a gift to the state and do not need to be disclosed on campaign forms.

Travel transparency

Haley does go a step beyond previous governors in travel transparency by providing a flight log in addition to the quarterly campaign-disclosure forms required by law.

Information on the flight log includes who provided the flight, where Haley traveled, who went with her, and the reason for the trip, such as personal time. Personal time can include a Haley family vacation or a fundraising trip. The governor's office has not routinely taken the extra step to reveal what the personal time was for and her campaign aide consistently refers questions to the governor's campaign-disclosure report, which can lag weeks or months behind real-time disclosure.

Ethics Commission lawyer Cathy Hazelwood said the rules are only as good as a politician's commitment to honesty and transparency.

Some legislators, including Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, have said the questions arising from Haley's travel might prompt new legislative review of state ethics laws after the Legislature reconvenes in January.

South Carolina's ethics laws were overhauled in the 1990s following the federal Lost Trust sting that sent legislators to prison, but no significant changes have been made since that time.

Hazelwood said questions about private flights do come up from time to time, but the situation in question involves Haley's travel more than any other candidate.

Kay Bierman Brohl, an ethics commissioner from Aiken, said the agency and its oversight board enforce campaign law similar to the way police officers enforce criminal laws. Lawmakers are the ones who have to decided how tough or lax the laws are.

Bierman Brohl acknowledged that the rule change will mean that politicians will max out on their donations from individual donors quicker, if those donors donate air travel on private airplanes.

"It will be their choice," she said. "They can take the commercial flight or they can chose to employ a private plane."

Former Gov. Mark Sanford's travel became an issue after his disappearance to Argentina in 2009. Sanford eventually ended up paying the largest ethics fine in state history over his travel and campaign spending, but his issues had more to do with the use of state-owned aircraft for personal use.

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