COLUMBIA — A Democratic South Carolina state senator said Thursday an ethics reform bill up for debate when the Legislature returns next week should address the governor’s trips to political functions.
Sen. Brad Hutto said he will propose an amendment that ensures taxpayers aren’t contributing to a political campaign through state cars or planes. His comments came after the attorney general’s office left the matter to the state Ethics Commission.
A government watchdog group has insisted that Gov. Nikki Haley reimburse taxpayers for a trip to North Carolina in June, even though the commission said it wasn’t necessary.
After the commission’s board in October backed up Director Herb Hayden’s interpretation of state law, Hutto asked Attorney General Alan Wilson to weigh in.
But Solicitor General Robert Cook wrote that his office can’t issue an opinion on such a particular situation.
He noted that state law provides the governor a car and security detail and doesn’t limit their use to official state business.
Cook also noted that nothing in state law bars campaign staff from the governor’s vehicle.
“This office is not authorized to ‘second guess’ the commission’s application of the ethics act to a given set of facts,” Cook wrote in the letter dated Dec. 23. “Accordingly, we must defer to the ethics commission in any administrative resolution to your question.”
Hayden said the letter should end the matter, though legislators can certainly pass a new law to address it going forward.
He added that the commission never received a formal complaint that would have triggered an investigation on whether the law was broken.
“At this point, it’s a done deal,” he said. “Nothing’s pending.”
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said the letter confirms the campaign’s position.
“As we have always
said, the governor and her campaign follow both the
law and the direction of the ethics commission, and the attorney general’s opinion simply confirms that,” he said.
Common Cause director John Crangle said Wilson is just dodging the issue. Crangle advocates dealing with it in the ethics reform bill.
“This problem of people using state resources for campaigns needs to be dealt with very, very clearly,” he said.
It would be one piece of a broader package meant to strengthen the state’s weak ethics laws. Legislators called ethics reform a top priority last year but didn’t get it done.
The bill is on the Senate calendar for debate when the 2014 session begins Tuesday.
Questions about Haley’s reimbursements to the state surfaced in August when the State Law Enforcement Division confirmed that an agent driving Haley on June 27 in Greensboro, N.C., crashed into a concrete pole. The trip was not part of the $7,610 in reimbursements her campaign paid in July for her out-of-state fundraisers over the previous fiscal year.
Crangle and other critics demanded Haley reimburse taxpayers for what they still consider a campaign function, noting that campaign staff accompanied her and she received donations during the trip. But Hayden said state law didn’t require it. She was there to speak during a conference benefiting an organization supporting North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s agenda. Because it was not a fundraiser for any person’s campaign, it wasn’t a campaign event, Hayden said.
The questions led to an Oct. 4 agreement on mileage reimbursement between Haley’s office, the Ethics Commission and SLED. Under the agreement, the governor will reimburse for traveling to anyone’s campaign event, not just her own. But if she’s making an official visit that day, such as a bill signing or ribbon cutting, she pays only for miles from that event to the campaign function.
Hutto said legislators need to devise a better way to split the cost, so taxpayers aren’t subsidizing the political portion of a trip.
“Clearly there are trips that can have a dual purpose,” he said. “The question is, can you create a state purpose to then write off a political trip. ... Splitting it is a reasonable starting point for the discussion. How much are we talking about anyway? It’s not like it’s going to break her bank account or any incumbent’s bank account to pro rate that expense.”
Following the agreement, Haley’s campaign paid $1,179 for the miles she rode to her in-state fundraisers between January 2011 and June 2013. Her campaign previously argued that, based on the practices of previous governors, she didn’t need to start paying for mileage until she officially announced her re-election bid in August. But Hayden told The Associated Press that, under state law, she never stopped being a candidate, so those reimbursements should have started when she took office.
Hutto’s comments followed the annual legislative workshop for reporters co-sponsored by the AP, the South Carolina Press Association and the South Carolina Broadcasters Association.