- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Gov. Nikki Haley can watch the University of South Carolina Gamecocks from a free luxury football suite only if she is conducting state business, the State Ethics Commission decided Wednesday.

The commission’s advisory opinion is a revision from last September, when the board unanimously said the university can continue its longstanding practice of providing free tickets to the box to whoever occupies the governor’s mansion, calling it a gift to the office rather than Haley herself.

While last fall’s opinion said state business - such as courting company executives or hosting out-of-state dignitaries - should be a priority for the 16 tickets, it allowed for personal use.

“A caveat we put in the opinion recognized that sometimes there won’t be a big company you’re trying to woo to South Carolina that’s going to need these tickets,” said agency attorney Michael Burchstead, referring to a paragraph that read, in part, “we are not advocating for the tickets to go to waste.”

Commissioner Frank Grimball said he’s concerned about weakening state ethics law that’s specifically meant to limit lawmakers’ entertainment by lobbyists, especially since the suite’s perks include free food and drinks. He said others may take advantage of the exception.

The issue is that the tickets’ value far exceeds legal limits on how much agencies that lobby state government can individually give elected officials. Those limits are $60 daily and $480 dollars yearly. State law provides an exception for events directly related to state or local economic development.

“I think our job is to protect the act,” Grimball said. “Why not direct the governor to follow the act?”

He cast the lone no for the revised opinion, which limits the box’s use to “state-related purposes.”

Grimball called that wording too vague and argued unsuccessfully that the tickets should be used only for economic development.

How much the gift is worth is unknown.

USC spokesman Wes Hickman has said the university can’t put a price tag on the tickets, provided for decades, because the governor’s office has a private suite on a level otherwise reserved for news media, the visiting athletic director and others who don’t pay.

Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said the governor personally attended two of six home games last year and three of seven in 2014.

Like previous administrations, Adams said, Haley has used the suite for state business “because there’s no better way to showcase the great things going on in our state.”

Haley attorney Butch Bowers, who had no objection to the revised opinion, said the box is sometimes used for state business without Haley attending. But the governor’s office couldn’t detail who has used the suite.

The opinion is limited to Gamecocks football tickets. The school also provides the governor’s office four season tickets to men’s basketball games.

Clemson University, Haley’s alma mater, provides the perk differently.

Clemson board members and others individually provide the governor a football suite to the Tigers’ home games. Haley listed the worth of each of the 10 suites as $3,200 in her 2016 “statement of economic interest,” submitted in March. Officeholders are required to list gifts, their value and who gave them in the annual disclosure.

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