S.C. governor plays political football

Rules allow Haley to enjoy free passes to college games

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South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley received more than $116,300 in free access to Clemson University football suites in her first four years as governor, plus her office received access to a suite for University of South Carolina home games.

AP

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley received an estimated $380,000 worth of free football passes to University of South Carolina and Clemson University football games during her first four years as governor  — and the state says there’s nothing wrong with that.

Despite the amount, and the fact that both universities lobby hard for state dollars every year, the Republican governor received a seal of approval from the state ethics commission last week after The Post and Courier and the Center for Public Integrity raised the issue with the governor’s office.

Both USC and Clemson are classified under ethics laws as “lobbyist’s principals,” which means they pay lobbyists to court lawmakers and other state officials to get support for their budgets and initiatives. As such, they can’t give state officials any gift valued at more than $60 a day, up to $480 per year — including football tickets.

Still, the state’s ethics rules leave ways of getting around those limits.

In the case of USC, Haley was provided use of a “suite” at Williams-Brice Stadium. It’s not clear exactly what that suite is worth, but the school advertises other suites as having indoor lounge seating, sliding windows, private restrooms, a sink, a refrigerator and high-definition television monitors — currently leased for $66,000 a year.

Such a gift would far exceed the limit, but Haley did not report the suite as a gift because, her staff explained, it is given to the governor’s office, not to her specifically, for use in economic recruitment and other state business. So therefore, neither limits nor disclosure requirements apply.

When asked about the suite, the governor’s office sought a ruling by the South Carolina Ethics Commission. Haley’s chief legal counsel, Holly G. Pisarik, argued in a letter to its executive director, Herb Hayden, that the football suite and tickets are an agency-to-agency arrangement for the benefit of the state, one that’s existed “for decades and spanning many administrations.”

Ethics Commission attorney Michael Burchstead told the Associated Press that it was a “close question.”

But the commission ruled on Sept. 16, because, after all, football season was underway, that the suite and tickets aren’t gifts to the governor as long as the use is for state purposes.

In addition to the generosity accorded the governor by the Gamecocks, Haley also received more than $116,300 in free access to Clemson University football suites between 2011 and 2014, according to her state ethics filings. Such a big number would also appear to violate limits.

But in this case, Clemson Tiger trustees and fans, not the university, provided Haley with use of a suite for the team’s home games. Those individuals do not face the same limits as the school — despite the fact that trustees each receive four free tickets from the school to every home game.

“We adopted the practice several years ago in the interest of transparency and to assure the public that the box was not being funded with public dollars,” Clemson spokeswoman Cathy Sams said.

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