Ethics chief wants tighter travel rules

Gov. Nikki Haley

Matt Silfer

COLUMBIA -- The head of the State Ethics Commission said Tuesday the rules surrounding politicians' travel need to be stricter, following concerns about Gov. Nikki Haley's trips aboard private airplanes.

Herb Hayden said he will ask the commission's governing panel as early as its Nov. 16 meeting to make a decision that will determine whether the first-term Republican governor needs to meet stricter ethics benchmarks in the future.

Hayden said Haley likely will not face any trouble over the more than

50 flights she has taken across South Carolina and the nation since her election a year ago, but he does disagree with legal advice the governor received from the commission's attorney about how to record the value of the trips she takes on private planes.

The enforcement of the ethics law going forward will have to be decided by the commission. Hayden runs the agency, but he does not set policy.

Butch Bowers, a campaign attorney for Haley, said the governor has consistently complied with the law and the guidance from the commission's attorney, Cathy Hazelwood.

"If the Ethics Commission decides to change the policy going forward, then the governor will certainly comply with the law," Bowers said.

Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey noted that the governor goes beyond the minimum required for public disclosure by releasing a voluntary flight log that lists who provided the flight, the dates of the trip, who traveled with the governor and a brief description of the purpose, such as personal time or a town hall meeting.

The log is something no other governor has provided.

At issue is the way the governor values the cost of plane rides. Haley lists the value of a flight on a private airplane as the cost of a first-class seat on a commercial flight to the same destination, which follows Hazelwood's legal advice.

Hayden said a flight must be calculated using the actual cost to fly the plane, including the gasoline, multiplied by the number of airtime hours.

"The commercial flight value is totally irrelevant," he said.

The difference between the two could be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars.

For instance, the governor reported a round-trip flight to a Texas fundraiser on a private airplane to be valued at $2,838. A flight from South Carolina to Texas is roughly three hours. Even on a basic seven-seater King Air, the trip's actual cost, not including any profit, would be $5,100, according to the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission.

The market value of a medium-size jet could cost up to $24,000 for the same trip, according to an estimate from OneSky Jets.

In addition to the calculation differences, Haley's flight donors also might have gone over the $3,500 maximum they are allowed to contribute toward her 2014 re-election, under state ethics laws.

In one case, Haley's flight log lists the price of a round-trip flight the governor took to Chicago in July as more than $4,500 for an event with the National Indian American Coalition.

Hayden said if the trip was personal, its value wouldn't be limited by the campaign law. But if the trip was campaign-related, the governor would have to pay the $1,000 difference.

Godfrey insisted that the event wasn't a campaign event, because the governor wasn't soliciting cash or votes.

Although Indian-Americans have been vigorous financial backers for Haley, her campaign disclosure report shows she did not receive any money from the July appearance.

The plane provider, Vikram Kumar, vice president of an electronics manufacturing company, said the transportation was provided for Haley as the event's chief guest and speaker.

"Besides enhancing the State of South Carolina, which she is successfully working hard at, Governor Haley has always taken interest in supporting the Indian American community," Kumar wrote to the newspaper in a recent email.

"As Indian Americans we are very proud of Governor Haley's accomplishments thus far and appreciate the fact that she never forgets her roots as an Indian American."

The event was pitched as a meet-and-greet for "movers-n-shakers of business, politics and entertainment" with "VIPs," such as Haley and Bollywood multi-platinum artists as an "excellent opportunity for 2nd generation Indian Americans to learn our political system, network and have fun at the same time."

A recent investigation by The Post and Courier into the governor's flight log revealed that Haley took at least 17 flights on private planes, including trips paid for by people with business before the state and at least three gubernatorial appointees with influential government positions.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her on Twitter at @yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog.