COLUMBIA — One of South Carolina’s most powerful elected officials has provided new details on how he reimbursed himself from his campaign account for tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of flights on his private plane.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s office this week released a formal explanation for how much his plane cost to operate between 2008 and 2011, saying Harrell reimbursed himself less than the fair market value of his flights.
“The plane enables him to get to events all over the state, and to House and legislative meetings that otherwise would be difficult for him to get to,” said Greg Foster, Harrell’s spokesman.
Harrell’s accounting of how he paid himself back for the flights shows that campaign donors helped pay some of the costs of his plane ownership, including property taxes, interest payments and other expenses in addition to upkeep and fuel.
Harrell, a licensed pilot, has owned a single-engine, fixed-wing Cirrus SR22 since 2005, when he paid about $205,000 for the aircraft, according to his office.
The speaker keeps the plane at Atlantic Aviation, a private airport on South Aviation Road in North Charleston.
Harrell often makes the approximate 30-minute flight from Charleston to Columbia, setting him apart from most of his legislative colleagues, who drive to the Statehouse.
In addition to job-related trips, Harrell, a Charleston Republican, also uses his plane for personal travel.
“He enjoys being a pilot and enjoys flying,” Foster said.
Owning and flying a plane is expensive, as a breakdown of Harrell’s ownership costs provided by his office shows.
Foster said Tuesday that from summer 2008 through 2011, the period for which Harrell is required by law to maintain receipts detailing his reimbursements, the speaker reimbursed himself about $94,000 for flights on his plane.
How did he arrive at that total?
Foster said Harrell obtained several estimates from charter companies for the cost of a leg, selected the cheapest price, then reimbursed himself less than that amount.
Foster said Harrell didn’t have “a set determination” of how much less he paid himself back. “Overall, he made sure to do it less,” Foster said.
Charter companies’ rates generally include fuel, maintenance and pilot costs in addition to profit.
A frequent Harrell flight over the past four years has been the round trip between Charleston and Columbia.
Flight logs filed with the Federal Aviation Administration show Harrell has flown that route more than 110 times since 2008.
One charter company estimated the cost of a private flight from Charleston to Columbia in a single-engine aircraft at $900 (the company did not have a specific estimate for an SR22).
Foster said it’s cheaper for charter companies to fly their planes than it is for the speaker to fly his aircraft because charter companies are able to spread their costs over more flights.
According to state law governing the use of campaign funds for personal expenses, officials may not spend an amount “clearly in excess of the fair market value of services, materials, facilities, or other things of value received in exchange.”
Nothing in state law provides specific direction for flight reimbursements.
State Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood said the charter rate “could be the fair market value.”
The Ethics Commission does not have oversight of Senate or House members such as Harrell. That responsibility falls to the Senate and House Ethics committees.
An attorney for the House Ethics Committee said that Harrell consulted with committee staff before reimbursing himself for flights, to assure that how he planned to do so complied with state ethics law.
According to Harrell’s office, the $94,000 the speaker reimbursed himself for use of the plane involved 155 hours of flying. That would mean Harrell reimbursed himself $606.45 per hour.
That figure is less than what Foster said it actually costs Harrell to fly, which Harrell calculates was more than $800 per hour.
“It cost him money out of his pocket to fly his airplane,” Foster said.
How did Harrell calculate his actual costs?
In addition to direct operating costs, such as fuel, oil and oil changes, Harrell’s explanation of his costs also includes many other expenses.
The out-of-pocket hourly costs Harrell tabulated include insurance, maintenance, property taxes, loan interest, depreciation and airplane hangar costs. Each of those totals are factored into what Harrell said is his hourly cost to fly his plane. The costs are based on Harrell flying an average of 60 hours each year between 2008-11 between personal and state-related travel.
Maintenance was Harrell’s greatest cost.
A per-hour cost estimate for flying an SR22 provided by Cirrus does not include many of the costs Harrell factored in. Still, Foster contends that the company’s estimate doesn’t reflect the true costs of flying.
By claiming reimbursements for flying his plane for trips to Columbia from Charleston, Harrell charged his campaign account much more than he would have been entitled to receive from the state for a car mileage reimbursement.
Lawmakers can claim mileage expenses for one trip from home to Columbia and back during each week of the legislative session.
State representatives receive 44.5 cents per mile.
A round-trip from a home Harrell owns in West Ashley to the Statehouse totals about 228 miles, which would entitle the speaker to a reimbursement of $101.46.
Using the hourly flight cost provided by Harrell, the speaker would reimburse himself just over $600 for the round-trip flight between Charleston and Columbia.
Harrell’s flight reimbursements could be examined in a prospective House Ethics Committee investigation of his campaign reimbursements and related receipts.
The committee is not allowed to accept a complaint within 50 days of an election in which the subject of the complaint is running. Harrell is seeking re-election on Nov. 6.
The leader of a state watchdog group has said he plans to file a complaint with the committee on Nov. 7.
Asked whether Harrell would be confident presenting the expenses he shared with the newspaper to the committee, Foster responded, “These are the actual expenses that the speaker incurred in operating this airplane.”
“No matter how you add it up, he reimbursed himself for less than the actual cost.”