COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley can continue to use University of South Carolina season football tickets and keep access to Williams-Brice Stadium’s executive suites, but it must be for state-related business, the State Ethics Commission ruled Wednesday.
The commission revisited an opinion from September that determined the Governor’s Office could use the tickets for any purpose — as long as the priority is on state-related matters.
The issue initially arose after the Center for Public Integrity and The Post and Courier asked the Governor’s Office about the tickets as part of the Capitol Gains investigative series, which examined the financial perks South Carolina politicians enjoy while in public office. The series found Haley received more than $116,300 in free access to Clemson University football suites between 2011 and 2014, plus access to a USC suite.
Ethics Commission attorney Michael Burchstead said the latest tweak in the rules came after Commissioner Frank Grimball asked for the opinion be reconsidered.
“Rather than saying ‘using the tickets for state-related purposes is a priority,’ the opinion states these tickets need to be used for state-related purposes, period,” Burchstead said.
Grimball said the opinion didn’t go far enough. He argued that allowing the governor’s office to use the tickets for any state-related business — and not specifically for economic development — would allow other state offices and municipalities to follow suit. He called the allowance vague in its scope.
Burchstead argued that the opinion was written with a limited scope on the Governor’s Office and couldn’t be applied to other entities.
Haley, and several governors before her for years have been provided use of a suite at Williams-Brice Stadium.
It’s not clear what that suite’s access value is worth, but the school advertises another suite as having indoor lounge seating, sliding windows, private restrooms, a sink, a refrigerator and high-definition television monitors. According to the Gamecock Club website, season tickets for non-suite seats directly beneath the press box cost at least $1,665 each. Leasing a 24-ticket suite that’s located between the end zones exceeds $100,000.
Haley’s office said the governor was following the previous pattern of governors showcasing the university football team.
“Like previous administrations, the office of Gov. Nikki Haley has used the University of South Carolina’s executive suite for state-related purposes, including economic development and business recruitment, because there’s no better way to showcase the great things going on in our state,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said.
The office does not keep a list of who uses the tickets and was unable to provide a list of attendees Wednesday from the 2015 season.
USC is classified under ethics laws as a “lobbyist’s principal,” which means the school pays 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.
But Burchstead said the tickets are given to the office — not an individual — adding that the governor does not continue to receive the tickets once he or she has left the position.
“I don’t understand how you could possibly separate the office of the governor from the governor,” said Grimball, who voted against the revised opinion.
“It seems to me that the person ultimately responsible for everything that happens within the office is (determined) by the governor.”
Clemson University, Haley’s alma mater, provides the perk differently. Clemson board members and others individually provide the governor a football suite to the Tigers’ home games.
Haley listed the worth of each of the 10 suites as $3,200 in her 2016 “statement of economic interest,” submitted in March. Officeholders are required to list gifts, their value and who gave them in the annual disclosure.
The Associated Press contributed.