University paying big bucks for no-passenger, one-passenger flights
Clemson may be No. 1 in football, but it also is the No. 1 user of the South Carolina state plane so far in 2015 including multiple trips in which the only passengers were either school president Jim Clements or his wife, Beth, a review by The Nerve of South Carolina Aeronautics Division flight logs and manifests from January to August found.
Clemson has a plane of its own, a 1998 King C90 primarily used by the athletic department, and uses one of the state’s two official planes on a contract basis.
Of 23 flights involving academic personnel from January to August, 11 were single-passenger junkets and eight of those were either Jim or Beth Clements traveling to various engagements. Their flights alone cost the school $18,425 through August, with all the destinations being in-state including Columbia, Charleston and Hilton Head.
Of 37 total university trips costing the school $104,830, the other 14 involved athletic department personnel including athletic director Dan Radakovich and his wife, Marcia, and head football coach Dabo Swinney and his wife, Kathleen, among others.
Though the athletic department has used the state plane in the past for football recruiting, that practice was halted in 2014 due to unwelcome media scrutiny and the school recently completed its purchase of a $4+ million jet paid for by private athletic department funds. The University of South Carolina has two turboprop planes, one it uses for academic trips and the other for the athletic department.
Joining the Clements in traveling by themselves on the plane were vice president for research Larry Dooley (once) and executive vice president for academic affairs and provost Bob Jones (twice).
These flights would appear to be against the school’s own internal guidelines for using the official aircraft that stipulate, among other justifications such as when commercial flights aren’t available or a destination isn’t served by commercial aircraft, that “the number of travelers makes the use of University provided aircraft cost effective.”
Clemson spokespserson Cathy Sams said the flights by Beth Clements, who is not a university employee, are entirely appropriate.
“In her role as first lady, Mrs. Clements is frequently asked to help host official out-of-town events and fundraising activities,” Sams wrote in an emailed response to The Nerve. “Because of family responsibilities – such as having a teenage child living at home – and scheduling, she occasionally must travel separately. These flights are handled according to board-approved policies.”
What makes Clemson’s mileage and cost using the state’s two private planes excessive compared to other state agencies is that every trip requires two extra legs with no passengers simply to get the plane from Columbia to Clemson and back to its hangar. Through August of this year, the state plane flew 63 times with no passengers aboard at a cost to Clemson of $36,840.
The cost of flights with no passengers for these legs ran anywhere from $285-$1,520, with the average leg from Columbia to Clemson costing $585. Despite spending $36,000 on flights with empty seats and $26,860 on flights with just one passenger (including the flights with Dooley and Jones), Sams said the benefit to Clemson is worth the expense reimbursing the state for use of the taxpayer-funded plane.
“Air travel allows us to minimize travel time and maximize productivity of administrators who have very demanding schedules,” Sams wrote. “Because of our location, a meeting in Columbia can consume an entire day with car travel. As a land-grant university, we also have a statewide presence with major operations from the Upstate to Charleston. Air travel enhances our ability to maintain close connections among these distributed locations.”
State legislators or agencies wishing to use the state plane must fill out a manifest not only listing all passengers but also certifying that the trip “is for the official business of the state of South Carolina” and include the nature of the trip. For every Clemson trip, the reason listed on that same form is one sentence: “Official Clemson University Business.”
The Nerve‘s Freedom of Information Act request to Clemson for the reasons behind each trip in 2015 showed that they ranged from speaking engagements to golf tournaments to awards dinners to meetings with legislators. With only Clemson knowing the reasons behind its use and that information only available to the public via a FOIA request, however, public transparency and accountability remain an issue for government watchdogs like Common Cause and director John Crangle.
“There’s no question that in the past Clemson has used the plane for reasons legislators and others believe are frivolous or unjustified,” Crangle said. “Until theres a statute that requires mandatory disclosure of what the flights are for, the public will not see the full magniture of the problem and the General Assembly won’t see the need to put some restrictions on the use of these planes.
“The public is entitled to know what the uses of the state plane are. The problem when you give discretion is that there are some people who can get out of control and use for their own reasons, such as Mark Sanford billing the state of SOuth Carolina to use the plane to see his girlfriend in Argentina.
“Without transparency of purpose, there’s no way for anyone to know what use of the plane is simply convenience versus what is actually necessary.”
After Clemson’s 130 legs through August of 2015, other top users of the state plane were Gov. Nikki Haley (91 legs), the Department of Commerce (29 legs) and the Ports Authority (26 legs). The top legislator using the plane was Rep. John King (D-York), with six legs at a cost of $7,280.
Reach Ron at 803-254-4411 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken or @TheNerveSC