Two Beaufort County legislators used a state plane for travel to a conference in Winston-Salem, N.C., this week, running up costs of about $3,850, according to the S.C. Division of Aeronautics.
South Carolina law allows state officials to use state-owned aircraft for official business. Still, a member of the Beaufort County Legislative Delegation who didn't travel aboard the plane questioned whether it was "the right thing to do."
Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, and Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, were among the seven passengers, who also included a lobbyist for the S.C. Association of Realtors. They were joined by two legislators from Charleston County and two officials from the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The group attended the Southern Legislative Conference, which started Saturday and ended Wednesday.According to the conference's Web site, the gathering featured "numerous programs of importance to state policymakers, as well as informal opportunities for meeting with colleagues from across the region to share challenges and solutions."
Herbkersman, who reserved the plane, said Thursday that legislators should use any tools necessary -- including the state plane, a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air 350 -- to advance commerce in the Lowcountry. That was his goal in attending the conference, he said.
Rep. Richard Chalk, R-Hilton Head, who drove to the conference, said Thursday he questioned his colleagues' use of the plane, especially given South Carolina's dismal economic conditions. The trip takes about five hours by car.
"Even though I don't think it was unethical, it's just not the right thing to do," Chalk said. "... We're not that important that the state needs to be flying us around. I question it doubly because of the economic conditions."
"I probably got there about as quick as they did," he said.
Erickson said the plane is "a resource for use for state business; in my opinion I was on state business, so it was justifiable."
"It alleviated 10 hours in the car for me," Erickson said. While at the conference, she worked on getting grants for the area, she said.
Records show that over the past 18 months, legislators have used a state plane less than once a month, on average.Hugh Tuttle, chief pilot for the S.C. Division of Aeronautics, said fewer legislators have asked to use planes recently.
"Perception is everything these days," he said. "...They're finding other more inexpensive ways to travel."
Flying on state aircraft became an issue recently for Gov. Mark Sanford, who has been criticized for using planes for personal and political travel -- two uses expressly forbidden by state law.
On Sunday, Tuttle flew the empty nine-passenger King Air from Columbia to Hilton Head, where he picked up Herbkersman and Erickson, according to a document released by the Division of Aeronautics.
The plane then flew to Charleston to pick up Rep. Anne Hutto, D-James Island; Rep. James Merrill, R-Daniel Island; and three other people who are not state officials: two employees of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau -- director of community relations Catherine Dority and director of investor relations Andy Rankin -- and Cashion Drolet, a lobbyist for the S.C. Association of Realtors.
Erickson said Drolet and the two convention bureau officials were brought along by the Charleston legislators. Drolet went because the Realtors association is sponsoring the conference in Charleston next year, Erickson said. The convention bureau officials went for the same reason.
Drolet could not be reached for comment.
The pilot discovered the plane had a technical problem in Charleston, so the seven passengers finished their trip on a plane owned by a friend of Merrill, Herbkersman said. All the passengers were told they would share the cost of that leg of the journey, Erickson said.
Once the state plane was repaired, the pilot flew it back to Columbia until the conference in Winston-Salem was over, then flew it there to pick up the passengers and return them to South Carolina, according to records.
Herbkersman and Erickson were taken to Hilton Head and the remaining five passengers were dropped off in Charleston, according to records. The pilot then flew the empty plane back to Columbia.
Herbkersman said he last used the state plane more than two years ago, but records show his most recent trip was in May 2008. He said he will ask to use the plane again if doing so helps him make connections that will bring jobs to the Lowcountry and improve the state's economy.
During the conference, Herbkersman said he networked with officials from a company that may be interested in moving its headquarters to Beaufort County. He declined to identify the company.
"It's incumbent on me to use every tool in the tool box to bring jobs to our area," he said. "... If we're not going to use a state plane to bring jobs here and do business, then why have it?"