Politics & Government

Audit advises openness on state aircraft use

State agencies that manage aircraft should provide more transparency about who is flying on the state's dime and why, recommends a state audit released Tuesday.

The audit also supports a conclusion of an S.C. Ethics Commission investigation: Republican Gov. Mark Sanford used state aircraft at least twice to attend political functions. State law limits use of state-owned aircraft to official state business.

Lawmakers - motivated in part by questionable travel by the governor - asked the Legislative Audit Council to review two years of flight logs of state aircraft and airline tickets purchased for state employees.

Auditors found no widespread abuse of state aircraft or airline tickets. But the audit made several recommendations for improvements, including:

- Agencies should begin putting records online showing who is flying in state-owned aircraft.

- SLED, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the S.C. Division of Aeronautics - the agencies that manage state-owned aircraft - should keep more detailed records. Manifests should include a passenger's affiliation with a state agency and contact information for the state official authorizing use of the state plane.

- Lawmakers need to make clearer the rules governing state employees' purchase of airline tickets.

The state Commerce Department came under fire last year for buying pricier business-class tickets for Sanford, the head of Commerce and a state lawmaker, Rep. Nikki Haley of Lexington, who is running for the GOP nomination for governor.

The audit concluded those purchases "violate the intent of state regulation which states that commercial airline travel must be in coach or tourist class."

Sanford's use of the state aircraft and his purchase of business-class airline tickets are among the 37 ethics charges that he faces.

The audit questioned two of Sanford's trips on state-owned aircraft - to a S.C. House Republican Caucus meeting in August 2007 and to a national Republican presidential primary debate in January 2008 - as improper, saying they were partisan, not official state business.

Sanford has maintained those trips were part of his official duties.

"We think the report falls in line with our continued belief that more clarity with regard to policy and procedures would likely be beneficial to all concerned - future governors, legislators and agency leaders alike - when it comes to the use of the state plane," Sanford said through his spokesman Ben Fox.

Paul Werts, who runs the state Division of Aeronautics, said putting flight data online and putting more details about flights and passengers is an easy fix.

"I think the recommendations will definitely be taken up," he said.

But, Werts added, taking the state plane is often the most efficient way for state officials to travel, especially given the time commercial airline travelers must spend in airports navigating security and waiting on connecting flights.

"Many times, this is the best way to conduct business," Werts said.