Originally created 11/24/03

State's top officers using planes less



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Compared with his predecessors, Gov. Mark Sanford already has cut back on his usage of state planes, saving the state thousands of dollars.

In fact, as the state budget crunch continues, constitutional officers as a whole are using the planes less, records show. In 2001, there were 208 flights by the state's top elected officials; last year there were 96.

"We're going to try and treat the taxpayers' money like it's your own. It's an expensive plane to fly, so I don't want to use it any more than I have to," Sanford says.

Sanford has insisted that Cabinet-level officers use commercial flights or drive when feasible. He also told them to share hotel rooms on as many trips as possible.

Former Gov. Jim Hodges and his staff took 101 flights on the state's airplanes during his first nine months in office at a cost of $40,213, according to an analysis of state Commerce Department records by The Associated Press. Sanford, who took office in January, took 67 flights during the first nine months of this year, costing $30,538.

Both men spent less than former Gov. David Beasley, whose flights on state planes and helicopters cost at least $59,000 during his first nine months in office in 1995.

By the time Beasley left office, he'd ordered five of the state's seven aircraft sold.

Sanford cited how little the state uses a co-owned jet recently after telling the Commerce Department to get out of that deal.

The state entered the joint ownership deal as it sold its Learjet in April 2000.

Hodges and aides used the co-owned plane for 45 hours of flight time that cost $86,143 in 2000 and 2001. Through mid-October, Sanford's office had never used the jet.

Although the state paid $136,549 in management fees since July for the jet, it hasn't been used since May. "We saw that, and we sold it," Sanford said.

The state has paid $623,457 in management fees since 2000 for the jet.

Along with the charges for the governor's office and other statewide officeholders, the four-year tab hits $998,000 for all state flights. The governor's office alone accounted for flights costing $338,307 since 1999. Commerce Department flights accounted for nearly all of the rest.

The state owns one plane, a King Air 350 twin turboprop that can fly up to nine passengers from Columbia to Charleston in less than a half-hour.

Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum and former Attorney General Charlie Condon rank second and third behind Hodges and Sanford in state plane use.

Tenenbaum has taken 71 flights since taking office 1999 with total charges of $23,378. The trips include six with multiple stops. For instance, in April 2001 a plane started in Columbia and stopped in Myrtle Beach, Rock Hill and Greenville before returning to the capital. Education Department spokesman Jim Foster said trips like that reflected multiple meetings around the state where driving wouldn't have allowed Tenenbaum to meet her commitments.

Condon and his staff took 19 flights in 1999 that cost $11,120. Those trips included stops in Washington, D.C., where Condon argued Congress violated states' rights in barring sales of the personal information that appears on drivers' licenses.

Condon said he always compared commercial flight prices to costs associated with using state planes. At some point in 2000, a price increase for using the state planes made them too expensive, he said.

Condon, a Republican, and Tenenbaum, a Democrat, are running for retiring U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings' seat.

Some constitutional officers didn't show up as using the plane, although they or their staff still flew.

For instance, former Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler made a point of avoiding using state aircraft, said Luke Byars, Peeler's former chief of staff. Nonetheless, Peeler does show up as a passenger on a flight to Washington, D.C., with state House Speaker David Wilkins

That 2001 trip came as Wilkins, Peeler and Condon tried to negotiate with the U.S. Energy Department over planned plutonium shipments to the Savannah River Site in Aiken.

State Treasurer Grady Patterson and former Comptroller General James Lander flew to New York in 1999, records show, but that trip was charged to the Commerce Department. Lander also flew with Hodges once and on a second Commerce-paid flight.

Adjutant General Stan Spears, who can ride in just about any National Guard aircraft he wants, was on five flights with Hodges after Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999.

The Agriculture Commission doesn't show up as requesting a flight, but then-Agriculture Commissioner Les Tindal was on flights requested by legislators in 1999 and 2001.

An ag agency employee, Wayne Mack, has been on legislator-requested flights frequently since 1999. He used the plane as recently as August on a flight requested by Sen. Danny Verdin to the Southern Nursery Association's trade show in Atlanta. Mack is the state's longtime agriculture marketing guru, Verdin said.