Sunday, August 9, 2009

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford used state aircraft for personal and political trips, often bringing along his wife and children — contrary to state law regarding official use, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Records reviewed by the AP show that since he took office in 2003, the two-term Republican has taken trips on state aircraft to locations of his children’s sporting events, hair and dentist appointments, political party gatherings and a birthday party for a campaign donor.

According to state budget law, “Any and all aircraft owned or operated by agencies of the State Government shall be used only for official business.”

On March 10, 2006, a state plane was sent to pick up Sanford in Myrtle Beach and return him to Columbia, the state capital, at a cost of $1,265 — when his calendar showed his only appointment in Columbia was “personal time” at his favorite discount hair salon. He had flown to Myrtle Beach on a private plane and attended a county GOP event.

The trip home on the state aircraft took off at 1:50 p.m. and arrived in Columbia at 2:35 p.m., enabling the governor to keep his plans for a 3 p.m. haircut across town. There were no other appointments on his official schedule that afternoon; the trip back to Columbia would have taken about three hours by car.

Also, on five of the last six Thanksgiving weekends, Sanford used a state plane to fly himself, his wife and their four sons from the family’s plantation in Beaufort County to Columbia for the state Christmas tree lighting. The cost for those flights alone: $5,536, including $2,869 for flying the plane empty to pick them up.

Sanford, 49, has been under increased scrutiny since he admitted in June to having a mistress in Argentina. He’s vowed to stay in office and says he is trying to reconcile with his wife, though she moved out of the governor’s official residence on Friday with their sons and plans to spend the school year at the family’s beach house.

The governor has made a political career out of being outwardly thrifty — known to demand that state employees use both sides of Post-It notes. He has frequently railed against government spending, and attempted for months to block federal stimulus money for South Carolina schools.

Last month, the AP revealed how Sanford had flown first class and business class on commercial airlines at taxpayer expense, despite a law requiring lowest-cost travel.

On many occasions, records show, the governor mingled his non-official travels with official business.

For example, on March 23, 2005, Sanford flew on a state plane from Columbia to Mount Pleasant, near the beach house, where the governor was scheduled for a 5 p.m. appointment with a dentist. Later that day, he had a TV interview before speaking at a Republican Party event for Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties along with U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint.

Such mingling also is problematic under South Carolina regulations.

Aeronautics Division rules say that “under no circumstances shall aircraft owned and operated by” the division “be used for personal or politically partisan purposes.” But there’s no clear enforcement mechanism for such violations; the division says it simply lets citizens know that statements attesting to official use of the planes are open to public inspection.

Still, misuse of state resources arguably could subject Sanford to civil or criminal penalties under the state’s ethics laws, which are enforced by the South Carolina Ethics Commission. Any public official found to have used state property for personal financial gain is subject to as much as a $5,000 fine and five years in prison. Only incidental use that does not result in additional public expense is exempt.

On April 29, 2006, a state plane flew Sanford from Greenville, not far from where one of his sons was in a soccer tournament, to Charleston, so the governor could attend a National Republican Senatorial Committee meeting on Kiawah Island.

“That’s personal use and political use. That’s not what the state plane is for,” said former Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat who said he occasionally mingled official state business with political and public events while using state aircraft, but only if the main purpose of the trip was official business.

Peggy Kerns, ethics director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said she knows of no state that allows its property to be used for personal or campaign purposes. “It’s like a no-brainer,” she said.

Government watchdogs said federal officials have to repay the cost of flying government planes for personal or campaign events and said they didn’t know of a state that permitted planes to be used for such trips.

The AP review also raises questions about how South Carolina polices the use of its aircraft and reveals a system rife with shoddy record keeping and violations of laws that require the public be able to see documents.

In South Carolina, governors are able to use aircraft run by different agencies: a King Air twin turboprop run by the Aeronautics Division that can seat nine passengers, and smaller, slower propeller-driven planes managed by the Department of Natural Resources.

As governor, Sanford has flown 353 hours aboard the larger plane and an additional 73 hours on the smaller, propeller planes — a total cost of nearly $373,000, according to Sanford’s office and other state records.

Sanford’s children spent more time on the bigger state plane than the children of the past two governors, records show. At least one of Sanford’s sons was aboard 43 flights during his first term alone. That compared with 11 during Hodges’ single term and 12 during David Beasley’s one term.

Overall, flights that included his children cost taxpayers more than $50,000, or about 14 percent of his total travel on state planes.

“If it was somewhere the governor was going, sometimes the kids tagged along. There is no additional cost to the taxpayers for the kids to be on the plane if it’s somewhere the governor is headed anyway,” said Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer, who stepped down Aug. 5.

Additional matches of flight documents and Sanford’s schedule show:

— An Oct. 14, 2004 pickup in Bishopville, where his schedule shows his son Marshall’s private school football team was playing. Afterward, the plane took him to Charlotte, N.C., for a commercial flight to Dallas, where his schedule placed the governor at a lake house in Texas for a gathering of Republican donors.

— A Nov. 14, 2006 flight to Mount Pleasant, where he attended a book signing. He then flew to Aiken for the 65th birthday party for a business owner who had donated more than $12,000 to his campaign.

— A July 8, 2005 use of the state’s turboprop to fly from Charleston to Greenville, where Sanford lists the official use of the King Air for a round-table discussion with business leaders, interviews and “Greenville County Bronze Elephant Dinner,” a county GOP event.

Sawyer said the governor had fewer hours on Aeronautics Division planes in his first term than his two predecessors: 229 hours, compared with Beasley’s 303 hours and Hodges’ 310 hours. Sawyer characterized the review of Sanford’s flight schedule as “continued cherry picking,” a term he used when the AP examined the commercial flights.

“Every time the governor used the plane it was for an official state purpose and that state purpose was documented,” Sawyer said.

He also said Sanford’s schedule doesn’t chronicle all his official activities. “The governor’s schedule is not reflective of everything he’s doing that day,” he said.

Former state Rep. Margaret Gamble, a watchdog on political travel issues, said Sanford should get the benefit of the doubt on a case-by-case basis. For instance, one of Sanford’s flights took him from Anderson to Marion County for a soldier’s funeral and then to Greenwood so he could get to a McCormick County GOP fundraiser. “Maybe he had a prior commitment,” she said, but needed to go to the funeral, too, and the plane was the only way to keep his promise.

Other governors have faced questions about aircraft use, including Beasley for using a state helicopter to get to a speech and then back for a golf game. John Crangle, state director for government watchdog group Common Cause, said governors “have been given almost unlimited latitude to do as they please, to come and go as they please or when they want to and to use the state’s resources for travel when they want.”

He said the AP research indicates Sanford repeatedly made mistakes.

“This was the Wild West for the governor’s travel when basically anything was permitted or done and accepted as normal,” Crangle said.

In fact, state law requires the Aeronautics Division to collect and keep sworn statements from aircraft users certifying flights were for official business within 48 hours of flights. Sanford’s office routinely filed that paperwork days or weeks late and the division destroys documents more than three years old.

“They’re actually destroying data that the Legislature gave them no permission to destroy. That’s like destroying evidence,” said state Sen. David Thomas, a Republican congressional candidate who has begun holding legislative hearings into Sanford’s use of state funds.

The same law requires the agency to post those records on its Web site. That was done briefly earlier this month, but the Aeronautics Division pulled the link to the records as the commission that oversees its operation reviews the law. Until July 1, the agency reported to Sanford’s cabinet.

And the law required the natural resources agency to keep official statements on flights, which it never has. Governors appoint the entire board overseeing the agency.

“The situation is one that’s dramatically out of control and needs to be completely overhauled,” Crangle said.

Added Thomas: “It’s an overwhelming ethical issue here. To me, this is clear misuse of state property.”

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