By Jim Davenport
Monday, August 10, 2009
COLUMBIA, S.C., Aug. 9-- Gov. Mark Sanford used state aircraft for personal and political trips, often bringing along his wife and children -- contrary to state law regarding official use, an Associated Press investigation has found.
According to state budget law, "Any and all aircraft owned or operated by agencies of the State Government shall be used only for official business."
Records reviewed by the AP show that since he took office in 2003, the two-term Republican has taken trips on state aircraft to his sons' sporting events, hair and dentist appointments, political party gatherings and a birthday party for a campaign donor.
On March 10, 2006, a state plane was sent to pick up Sanford in Myrtle Beach and return him to Columbia, the state capital, at a cost of $1,265 -- when his calendar showed his only appointment in Columbia was "personal time" at his favorite discount hair salon. He had flown to Myrtle Beach on a private plane and attended a county GOP event.
The trip home on the state aircraft took off at 1:50 p.m. and arrived in Columbia at 2:35 p.m., enabling the governor to keep his plans for a 3 p.m. haircut across town. There were no other appointments on his official schedule; the trip back to Columbia would have taken about three hours by car.
Also, on five of the last six Thanksgiving weekends, Sanford used a state plane to fly himself, his wife, Jenny, and their four sons from the family's plantation in Beaufort County to Columbia for the state Christmas tree lighting. The cost for those flights alone: $5,536, including $2,869 for flying the plane empty to pick them up.
Sanford, 49, has been under increased scrutiny since he admitted in June to having a mistress in Argentina. He's vowed to stay in office and says he is trying to reconcile with his wife, though she moved out of the governor's official residence on Friday with their sons and plans to spend the school year at the family's beach house.
"If it was somewhere the governor was going, sometimes the kids tagged along. There is no additional cost to the taxpayers for the kids to be on the plane if it's somewhere the governor is headed anyway," said Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer, who stepped down last Wednesday. Aug. 5.
The governor has made a political career out of being outwardly thrifty -- known to demand that state employees use both sides of Post-It notes. He has frequently railed against government spending, and attempted for months to block federal stimulus money for South Carolina schools.
Last month, the AP revealed how Sanford had flown first and business class on commercial airlines at taxpayer expense, despite a law requiring lowest-cost travel.
On many occasions, records show, the governor mingled his non-official travels with official business. For example, on March 23, 2005, Sanford flew on a state plane from Columbia to Mount Pleasant, near the beach house, where the governor was scheduled for a 5 p.m. appointment with a dentist. Later that day, he had a TV interview before speaking at a Republican Party event for Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties along with Sens. Lindsey O. Graham and Jim DeMint.
Misuse of state resources arguably could subject Sanford to civil or criminal penalties under the state's ethics laws, which are enforced by the South Carolina Ethics Commission. Any public official found to have used state property for personal financial gain is subject to as much as a $5,000 fine and five years in prison. Only incidental use that does not result in additional public expense is exempt.
Peggy Kerns, ethics director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said she knows of no state that allows its property to be used for personal or campaign purposes. "It's like a no-brainer," she said.
Government watchdogs said federal officials have to repay the cost of flying government planes for personal or campaign events and said they didn't know of a state that permitted planes to be used for such trips.