COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina’s attorney general said Thursday he wants state ethics commissioners to review Gov. Mark Sanford’s use of state aircraft and any other potential violations of state law.
The letter from Attorney General Henry McMaster to the chief of the state Ethics Commission follows Associated Press investigations into Sanford’s use of state aircraft for personal and political trips, and his flights on commercial airlines.
“This is to request the South Carolina Ethics Commission to investigate these allegations involving the use of state planes and any other potential violations of the State Ethics Act,” McMaster wrote in a brief letter to Herb Hayden, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, which enforced the state’s ethics laws.
The next step would be for the ethics commission’s staff to investigate the complaint and determine if there is probable cause for a full hearing.
Sanford has called the AP characterization of some of his flights “misleading” and says they are taken out of context in part because he has used state planes less than his predecessors. He also says he’s ridden in the same type of seats as other governors on commercial flights.
“We’ve really tried to go to extra mile, when it comes to watching out for the taxpayer,” the governor said Thursday. “I look forward to the Ethics Commission or anybody looking at the way we used that plane.”
Records reviewed by the AP show that since Sanford took office in 2003, the two-term Republican has taken trips on state aircraft to locations of his children’s sporting events, hair and dentist appointments, political party gatherings and a birthday party for a campaign donor.
The letter from McMaster includes excerpts of state law, including: “Any and all aircraft owned or operated by agencies of the State Government shall be used only for official business.”
Misuse of state resources can lead to civil or criminal penalties under the state’s ethics laws. 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.
Last month, the AP revealed how Sanford had flown in pricey seats on commercial airlines at taxpayer expense, despite a law requiring lowest-cost travel. State Sen. David Thomas, a GOP congressional candidate who has been investigating those flights, said this week the more expensive flights on two state Commerce Department trips broke the law — costing taxpayers 13,700 more than the economy class flights available.
Sanford repeated Thursday that other governors have flown in such seats. He has said the revelation in June of his international affair has opened him to unfair attacks.
“If one wants to change the standard to say, no business class tickets for any governor, or any secretary of commerce, or any economic development team going forward, that would be fine,” Sanford said. “But don’t come up with a different standard, which is to a degree what Sen. Thomas is trying to do.”
In an opinion piece published in state newspapers on Thursday about the state plane use, the governor said his dentist appointment was for a chipped tooth treated on his way to a television news interview, and he questioned why he would have flown to a haircut at a discount salon that does not take appointments.
He has not addressed other state plane flights detailed in the report, including one that took him to a donor birthday party, and one that took him to a North Carolina airport for a commercial flight to a GOP gathering in Texas.
“Inevitably, I am certain that there is something our office did less than perfect in my constant moving around the state, but I can say with equal clarity that it was always within the context of trying to maximize my days and watch out for the taxpayer in the process,” the governor wrote in the op-ed.