The House Ethics Committee said it was not “an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars and resources” to use the state-owned air plane to fly people to Columbia to testify about bills before the legislature.
But Monday, the committee unanimously dismissed a complaint against Rep. Bill Chumley, who used the state plane to fly conservative commentator and economist Walter Williams to Columbia 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 would likely be revisited. He also said the opinion was not relevant to Chumley’s case because it was issued after Chumley authorized $6,390 in taxpayer dollars to fly Williams to Columbia.
“I think 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 because he testified under oath that he did not benefit financially from Williams’ testimony. Last month, the committee unanimously found “probable cause” that Chumley had violated a state budget proviso which said the state plane can only 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.”
But the proviso says if anyone violates it, they 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.” Chumley said he did not knowingly violate the law, because he had an opinion from a House Ethics Committee attorney saying it was OK to 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,’” Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said. “The letter says the ultimate decision will be up to the ethics committee.”
But Chumley’s attorney, Reese Boyd, said if Chumley were guilty, then so were several other House members who have used the 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 what Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's attorney said during her ethics proceedings, when he argued that finding Haley guilty 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 the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The bill Chumley wanted Williams to testify about, H.3101, originally sought to nullify the Affordable Care Act in South Carolina. Chumley's supporters from his Spartanburg House district, who packed the meeting room to capacity on Monday, viewed the ethics charges against him as retaliation. 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.”
Stavrinakis says that won’t happen.
“I think 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.”