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In January, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell and his spokesman, Greg Foster, took a state plane trip to Greenville for an unspecified speaking event and meeting with local government officials, state flight records show.

The Charleston County Republican and Foster returned to Greenville on a state plane in March for an unspecified business announcement, according to the flight manifest filed by Harrell with the S.C. Aeronautics Commission.

In February, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, and his wife flew on a state plane to visit Vice President Joe Biden in Washington and attend a Black History Month program at the White House, according to the flight manifest filed by Rutherford. Then-Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott joined the couple on the return state plane trip to Columbia, flight records show.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Brian White, R-Anderson and the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, also took state plane trips this year to visit the nation’s capital, according to records.

None of those legislative leaders has been accused of improperly using state-owned planes. But on Nov. 26, the S.C. House Ethics Committee voted unanimously among those present to find probable cause that Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, might have violated state ethics law by authorizing the use of a state plane in March to bring George Mason University economics professor Walter Williams from the Washington area to testify at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on a bill sponsored by Chumley.

The legislation (H. 3101), which passed the House this year but remains in the Senate, is aimed at stopping the implementation in South Carolina of the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”

Chumley, who has served in the House since 2011, was the subject of a meeting Tuesday of the House Ethics Committee. The case of Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, who faced the committee in a Nov. 26 hearing on allegations of possible misuse of campaign funds, also was on the agenda.

The committee met in closed session, though the agenda gave no specifics on the purpose. A hearing in Chumley’s case has been set for Dec. 23 at 9:30 a.m. in Columbia.

In South Carolina, the House and Senate police their own members for ethics violations through their respective ethics committees. Lawmakers are expected to continue debating whether they will give up some of that power when they return Jan. 14 to Columbia for the next legislative session.

Chumley’s case

Contacted by The Nerve, House attorney Steve Davidson confirmed that the Ethics Committee on Nov. 26 found probable cause that Chumley might have violated Section 8-13-765 of the S.C. Code of Laws – the same law cited in the initial complaint, which was filed in June by Thomas Davies of Woodruff – Chumley’s Democratic opponent in the 2010 House election.

But two House Ethics Committee documents, which were provided to The Nerve, contradict each other on whether Chumley might have violated that particular law.

In a letter to Chumley on March 20 – the same date of the House Judiciary subcommittee hearing at which Williams testified – Emma Dean, a House Ethics Committee attorney, wrote: “The (state) Ethics Act does not specifically address the use of the state plane. Staff cannot speak to the other statutes or procedures outside the Ethics Act regarding use of the state plane.

“Therefore, it is the opinion of the Ethics Committee staff that you would not be committing a violation of the South Carolina Ethics Act by requesting the state plane be used to transport a witness to a subcommittee meeting.”

But in an advisory opinion issued on May 23, the committee found that the “use of the state airplane to transport witnesses for testimony before legislative subcommittees may violate section 8-13-765 of the State Ethics Act, which prohibits the use of government resources for political purposes.”

The law, however, doesn’t include the phrase “political purposes.” Instead, it more narrowly reads: “No person may use government personnel, equipment, materials, or an office building in an election campaign.”

Generally, advisory opinions are the official positions of the House Ethics Committee. Dean’s March 20 letter contains a disclaimer in bold that reads, “This letter is an informal letter of advice and does not hold any precedential value.”

In his June 20 written response to Davies’ formal complaint in his case, Chumley contended he didn’t violate Section 8-13-765 because the March 20 subcommittee hearing was “unequivocally not an ‘election campaign’ or a campaign event, nor was it in any way associated with any election campaign or campaign event,” adding that the law in question “simply does not apply to the facts at issue in this complaint.”

Chumley cited Dean’s March 20 letter in his response, noting, “Had there been any indication from counsel to this Committee, whatsoever, or any other individual in a position to advise, that my request to use the state aircraft was in any way violative of the state Ethics Act or otherwise improper, then I certainly would have made alternative arrangements for Dr. Williams’ transportation.”

Chumley also took note of the May 23 advisory opinion’s change in the wording of the law from “election campaign” to “political purposes.”

“However, and to the extent that such a broad standard of interpretation was adopted by this Committee in its ethical advisories, the Committee should also consider that virtually everything that occurs in the legislature, the Statehouse, and elsewhere in state government, is ‘political’ on some level,” he said in his written response.

“It would seem that, taken to its logical conclusion, this new and expansive definition of ‘election campaign’ ... would likely open the floodgates for ethics complaints against not only myself, but also every member of the House of Representatives,” he added.

Asked about the Ethics Committee’s probable cause finding against Chumley based on Section 8-13-765, Davidson told The Nerve, “They’re not tied to that provision,” adding that as a general principle, the committee can “find a violation under any provision of the Ethics Act.”

The May 23 advisory opinion cited a state budget proviso (89.24 in the 2012-13 budget, 117.23 in the 2013-14 budget), that says “official business” in the use of state planes does not include “routine transportation to and from meetings of the General Assembly or committee meetings for which mileage is authorized,” or for “attending a press conference, bill signing or political function.”

But the opinion also noted that the House Ethics Committee “does not believe that the use of a state plane directly violates this section as (to) the use of the plane by someone other than the member of the General Assembly.”

Davies’ complaint against Chumley, which cites the same law as Ethics Committee’s advisory opinion, is dated June 3 – 12 days after the advisory opinion was issued. Asked a week ago if he relied on the advisory opinion in drafting his complaint, Davies, who noted he worked as a carpenter for 40 years, initially replied, “Not really,” but later on in the interview gave this answer:

“No, I can read. I was a political science major. I understand this stuff.”

“I’m just trying to keep him (Chumley) straight,” Davies said. “The guy says he’s a fiscal conservative, but he’s wasting money.”

“Ironically, it is Mr. Davies himself who is misusing state resources – the time and expense of this Committee’s staff and resources – for his own political purposes,” Chumley said in his written response to the complaint.

Chumley or his attorney, Reese Boyd of Murrells Inlet, did not respond to written and phone messages seeking comment.

In his written response to his ethics complaint, Chumley said the “sole purpose in providing Dr. Williams to testify before the subcommittee was to provide the subcommittee members with expert testimony based on Dr. Williams’ vast scholarship and experience on the matters that are the subject of H. 3101.”

In covering Chumley’s ethics case, mainstream media outlets typically described Williams as a conservative pundit and occasional fill-in for nationally known radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. What most of those reports didn’t include was that Williams is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University; he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in economics from UCLA, according to his biography on the GMU website.

Chumley in his written response noted that although Williams has served as an occasional guest on Limbaugh’s radio program, Williams does not have his own radio program.

“There was absolutely no intent on my part, or anyone’s part, that I ‘gain access’ to Dr. Williams’ radio audience by bringing him to testify for the subcommittee, and I in fact have gained no such access,” he said.

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Frequent legislative fliers

The Nerve in October 2012 revealed that over the previous year, state lawmakers, Gov. Nikki Haley and others collectively took mostly 118 round trips on the two state-owned planes at a total taxpayer cost of more than $215,000.

The joint investigation by The Nerve and WLTX-TV in Columbia found that no one at the state level monitors whether travelers are using the state planes for legitimate purposes, and that state law spells out only a few things that the state planes cannot be used for, leaving it open to the travelers’ interpretation in many cases.

Unlike most state agencies, the General Assembly and Governor’s Office are exempt from reimbursing the S.C. Aeronautics Commission for use of the state planes, though the commission calculates the cost of those flights, The Nerve-WLTX review found.

In the wake of the controversy surrounding the Williams’ trip in March, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, introduced a bill (S. 605) in April that would ban the use of state planes to transport a person in or out of the state to testify before a legislative standing or special committee. The bill never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it can be considered in the legislative session that starts next month.

The bill, which has 11 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, would require House and Senate members to get permission from the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore, respectively, before using the state planes, though it doesn’t address monitoring of trips by the House speaker or Senate president pro tempore.

Harrell, who took two state plane trips earlier this year to Greenville with his spokesman, didn’t return written and phone messages from The Nerve seeking comment on his trips. The Nerve’s 2012 investigation found that over the previous year, Harrell took state plane trips to attend three unspecified speaking events in North and South Carolina, state flight records show.

In August 2012, Harrell took another state plane trip to the Upstate to speak at the opening of the South Carolina Apple Festival and to the Westminster Rotary Club, according to his flight manifest.

In May 2013, Rep. White, the House Ways and Means chairman, joined three other lawmakers – Reps. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort; Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley; and Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston – and Duane Parrish, the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism director, on a state plane trip to Manassas, Va., on what was described in flight manifests as a “tourism meeting” with the state’s congressional delegation.

Manassas is located about 32 miles from Washington.

White did not return a phone message seeking comment on his trip. Neither did Senate Finance Chairman Leatherman, who accompanied Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, Georgetown County’s administrator and two private passengers on a state plane trip last month to Manassas for an unspecified “economic development” purpose, according to the flight manifest.

Contacted by The Nerve, Rutherford, the House minority leader, said S.C. officials who have meetings in Washington and want to use a state plane typically must land in Manassas.

Rutherford, a criminal defense attorney, defended his February state plane trip with his wife to visit Vice President Biden, as well as two other state plane trips this year – a February trip to Durham, N.C., for a drug policy conference; and a September trip to Myrtle Beach for the annual state public defender conference. He said he spoke at both events, though he added he didn’t receive any speaking fees.

“Every time I get on that plane, it’s for an official purpose,” Rutherford said, noting that in recent years he has received more speaking requests because of his leadership position. “We believe that the plane is an essential tool for the citizens of South Carolina, for people to hear from their legislators instead of asking people to come to Columbia.”

Asked how Chumley might have violated state ethics law in the use of the state plane, Rutherford, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Williams’ testimony in March was “not fact-based; it was opinion-based.”

“That looks more like a campaign than an official government function,” said Rutherford, who has served in the House since 1999.

“At least it could be skewed that way,” he quickly added.

Rick Brundrett is a reporter for the website TheNerve.org, which is a project of the S.C. Policy Council. The council is a Columbia-based group that says its mission “is to promote freedom, protect freedom and prove that freedom works.” Reach Brundrett at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

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Editor

Lee Harter has been editor of The Times and Democrat since 1981

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