The House Ethics Committee said earlier this year it was not “an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars and resources” to use a state-owned airplane to fly witnesses to Columbia to testify about bills before the Legislature.
But Monday, the committee unanimously dismissed a complaint against state Rep. Bill Chumley, who used a state plane to fly conservative commentator and economist Walter Williams to Columbia from Washington to testify in favor of a bill that would nullify the federal Affordable Care Act.
State Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said the committee’s earlier stance – issued in the form of an advisory opinion – was “inartfully drafted” and likely will be revisited. He also said the opinion was not relevant to Chumley’s case because it was issued after the Upstate lawmaker authorized use of a state plane, at a cost of $6,390 to taxpayers, to fly Williams to Columbia.
“Justice was served,” Chumley told reporters after the hearing. “This points to the fact that we need to clean things up so that this doesn’t happen again.”
The committee – made up of five Democrats and five Republicans – cleared Chumley because it said he did not knowingly break the law and did not benefit financially from Williams’ testimony.
Last month, the committee unanimously found “probable cause” that Chumley had violated a state budget proviso that says the state plane only can be used for “official state business,” specifically banning its use for “routine transportation to and from meetings of the General Assembly or committee meetings for which mileage is authorized.”
Violators of the proviso must be charged under state law 8-13-700(a). That law says "no public official ... may knowingly use” state-owned equipment “for financial gain.”
But Chumley said Monday that he did not knowingly violate the law, citing an opinion he obtained from a House Ethics Committee attorney saying it was OK to use the state plane to fly Williams to Columbia.
That thinking worried some on the committee.
“I don’t want people to think that the House of Representatives has a lawyer on staff who writes letters saying, ‘Hey, do whatever the heck you want, and you just use this defense later,’ ” said state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston. “The letter says the ultimate decision will be up to the Ethics Committee.”
But Chumley’s attorney, Reese Boyd, said if the Spartanburg Republican violated state law, then so too did several other House members who have used a state plane to attend White House functions and other political events, according to state records.
“Your goose may be the next one in the oven,” Boyd said. “How are you going to do your job if you can’t get advice from counsel?”
Boyd’s comments were similar to those made Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s attorney during her House Ethics proceedings in 2012. Haley’s lawyers argued finding the governor guilty of ethics violations would “impugn the integrity of many other members of the General Assembly.”
Haley, like Chumley, was cleared of all charges.
While Monday’s hearing was about Chumley’s use of the state plane, it carried the much more volatile subtext of conservative anger with the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The bill that Chumley wanted Williams to testify about, H.3101, originally sought to nullify the Affordable Care Act in South Carolina. Supporters from Chumley’s Spartanburg House district packed Monday’s meeting room to capacity, calling the ethics charges against him retaliation for his opposition to Obamacare. Chumley testified the complaint against him was filed by Thomas Davies, who had run against Chumley as a Democrat.
“I do feel vindicated,” Chumley said. “If it would change policy for the right reason for the right way, yeah, I would do it again. I don’t feel like it was wrong to start with.”
But Stavrinakis said lawmakers will not be able to use a state plane to ferry committee witnesses in the future.
“There is an obvious discomfort level on behalf of the committee with that kind of expenditure of taxpayer money. But our job, in that particular hearing, was to decide if the law was broken in terms of a violation,” Stavrinakis said. “We need to make it clear that it is not allowed.”
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.