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S.C. governor's charter jet use under scrutiny

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford relied on charter jet services costing more than $63,000 when traveling in Europe on two state business trips, an Associated Press investigation has found.
Image: Mark Sanford
Gov. Mark Sanford at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. , on Sept. 10.Mary Ann Chastain / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, already facing scrutiny for expensive taxpayer-funded flights, relied on charter jet services costing more than $63,000 when traveling in Europe on two state business trips, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Sanford, his commerce secretary and two other state officials charged taxpayers more than $43,000 for use of a seven-passenger executive jet for several days of travel from France to Germany and Estonia during a June 2007 trip, state records show.

Also, taxpayers paid more than $20,000 so the governor and three state officials could fly a seven-passenger charter jet earlier this year when traveling from Poland to the Czech Republic, Germany and Switzerland, according to the records.

Commercial flights readily available for those trips would have saved the state $41,223, according to the average of current ticket prices listed on a Web booking site. But state officials said the governor and others couldn't fly commercial because their meetings in various locales were scheduled too close together.

Other governors used trains
The use of expensive charters surprised a former state economic development director who said less costly commercial travel in Europe was the norm during his tenure under former governors Democrat Dick Riley and Republican Carroll Campbell. Also, two other former governors confirmed they flew commercial unless traveling to remote areas.

"We traveled by train and regularly scheduled flights," said J. Mac Holladay, who served as head of the state Development Board.

State officials travel overseas to encourage European companies to locate in South Carolina. Sanford's European travel has attracted new business to the state and has brought badly needed jobs, state officials said.

Sanford spokesman Ben Fox defended the governor, saying his travel expenses should be evaluated more broadly to appreciate the total savings since he took office in 2003.

"If you look at the totality of the governor's travel records, you'll see a habit of not only saving taxpayer dollars wherever possible and when the situation allows, but going above and beyond," Fox said.

Sanford, the embattled Republican governor who last week rejected calls for his resignation from the state GOP and 61 of the 72 House members from his own party, faces an ethics investigation of his travel habits. A growing number of legislators are discussing the prospect of impeachment.

The governor's travel became the focus of attention after he returned from a mysterious absence in June to announce an affair with an Argentine woman he later called his soul mate. The married father of four sons said he began the adulterous relationship while on a state trip to South America in 2008.

Trying to reconcile with his wife
Sanford has said he is trying to reconcile with his wife, who moved out of the governor's mansion to live with their sons at the family's coastal home.

Throughout his political career, Sanford has cast himself as a frugal conservative, known to demand that state employees use both sides of Post-It notes. His 2002 gubernatorial campaign included attacks against other state officials for what he called wasteful travel expenses.

The ethics investigation of Sanford's travel is focused on the findings of several AP investigative stories into possible violations of state law — that the governor failed to report use of private planes on disclosure forms; used state planes for personal and political trips; and charged the state for more expensive first- and business-class flights when traveling overseas.

Sanford began turning records over to investigators in that inquiry last Friday.

The Poland trip, in April, is one of those already under ethics review because Sanford charged the state more than $5,000 for first- and business-class flights to Europe, expense records show. State law requires the "most economical" travel possible on agency trips, and a state Senate budget panel chairman investigating Sanford's travel said the Poland trip violated state law.

Expense records obtained by the AP under an open records request show that Sanford, Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor and two commerce employees began the chartered travel on April 21, when they boarded a Cessna Citation Bravo jet in Warsaw, Poland for a 75-minute flight to Prague. The seven-seat aircraft featured first-class accommodations, a refreshment center and telephone service, according to a description by the European charter service.

The next day, Sanford and the other three boarded the private jet for an hour-long flight to Munich. And later that night, they took the jet to Sweden, a flight of just over two hours.

Daily commercial flights available
The charter jet service cost $20,505, expense records show. Commercial flights to those destinations would have cost an average of $12,724, or $7,781 less than the executive jet, according to ticket prices listed this week on online flight booking services.

Numerous daily commercial flights were available, with six nonstop flights and 19 connecting flights between Warsaw and Prague; six nonstop and 37 connecting flights between Prague and Munich; and 10 nonstop and 24 connecting flights between Munich and Stockholm.

Sanford, Taylor and two commerce employees also used private jet service once they arrived in Europe for a similar six-day economic development trip in 2007, state expense records show. On June 19, 2007, the four boarded a seven-passenger Cessna Citation Jet 2 for an 80-minute flight from Paris to Hannover, Germany.

The next day, Sanford's delegation took the jet to Tallinn, Estonia, about three hours flying time from Hannover.

Sanford cut his trip short, flying to Munich on the charter jet later that night to catch a commercial flight back to South Carolina because of a major Charleston fire that killed nine firefighters. The rest of the state delegation used the charter jet to return to Munich later, and also for a roundtrip flight between Munich and Stuttgart, Germany.

The jet service cost the state $43,416, expense records show. The average cost of available commercial flights for each of the trips totaled $9,973 for everyone, or $33,442 less than the charter service, according to ticket prices listed this week on online booking services.

‘Pretty pricey transportation’
There also were numerous daily flight options for commercial travel, with eight nonstop flights and 23 connecting between Paris and Hannover; nine connecting flights between Hannover and Tallinn; 15 connecting flights between Tallinn and Munich; and six nonstop flights between Munich and Stuttgart, according to online booking services.

Legislators concerned about Sanford's actions in recent months said they were surprised to learn of the latest revelations.

"That's pretty pricey transportation to get four people around over a period of a couple of days in Europe," said state Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who has questioned Sanford's spending in the past. "I would hope that there would be a good explanation."

Commercial flights and trains within Europe were considered for Sanford and others to use to make their economic development meetings during the two trips, Commerce spokeswoman Kara Borie said.

"However, chartering the plane was the only way the agency could make the schedule work," she said. "When meeting with CEOs, high-ranking executives of large corporations and other dignitaries, we accept meetings not when it is convenient for us, but rather when it is convenient for them."

She added that state officials decided to use the charter jet service after developing a schedule of meetings for the two trips.

David King of the Central South Carolina Alliance economic development group said state delegations sometimes use charter flights on international trips if their meeting schedule is tight. But King, who joined Sanford and other state officials on one trip, said the cost of private jets was too high for his group.

"We don't have a state budget," King said.

‘It wasn't routine’
Former Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, recalled using a chartered plane on two international trips with Commerce. But Hodges, defeated by Sanford in 2002, said use of the aircraft was limited to flights visiting state business prospects in remote areas.

"It wasn't routine," Hodges said of chartering planes.

Former Gov. David Beasley, a Republican, said he could not recall using charter planes on economic development trips. "That's not the way we did it," he said.

Sanford's spokesman Fox said the governor went out of his way to cut travel costs, including selling South Carolina's interest in a trans-Atlantic jet; instructing agencies to share aircraft; using the state helicopter less than previous governors; declining use of a BMW provided for governors; and using a single-engine Cessna at times for travel instead of a larger jet.

"The governor's commitment to saving taxpayer dollars is well documented, and something we've repeatedly described in detail," Fox said.

Hodges said his decision to lease a quarter share in a jet used for domestic travel saved money as the state got rid of an aging Learjet. Although Sanford declined the BMW, he regularly drove other state-owned vehicles, including one in June he used to drive to Columbia's airport to fly to Argentina to meet his mistress.