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SC Commerce spent $134K on 2 overseas trips

Seanna Adcox, Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina's Commerce Department spent $134,000 on economic development trips to London and Tokyo earlier this year, or $26,000 less than initially estimated, according to final tallies provided to The Associated Press and other media through open records requests.

The agency reports spending more than $97,000 to send Gov. Nikki Haley and 10 other state employees to an international air show in London in July. It spent $36,880 to pay for Haley and seven others to attend a trade meeting in Japan in September.

Initial post-trip estimates of $106,000 and $54,000, respectively, were projected based on per diems, commerce spokeswoman Amy Love said Monday.

"Commerce has a budget for business development missions and works to stay under or within the budget," she said.

The combined tallies are less than the $160,000 the department spent on a single trip in June 2011. Critics called the Paris Air Show and tour of BMW headquarters in Munich, Germany, a taxpayer-funded junket and vacation. Haley's husband, Michael, reimbursed the state $1,440 for his expenses months later. Officials say Michael Haley paid his own way to Tokyo and did not travel to London.

Gov. Haley's tab was the highest on the Tokyo trip, at $4,983, largely because of higher airfare. Her $2,209 ticket cost $400 more than the highest Commerce employee's ticket and $360 more than her assistant's. Love explained the difference as the timing of the bookings. Haley did not fly first class, but rather "economy comfort coach," she said.

Haley's tab was the third-lowest in London, at $2,814.

"The governor's office always looks for ways to lower costs to taxpayers of any official state function, and that includes the governor's economic development travel that brings jobs to South Carolina," said Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey.

The tallies do not include costs of those sent by local governments, colleges and regional alliances. It also doesn't include Haley's two security guards, whose expenses are paid by the State Law Enforcement Division.

Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt has said the trips were vital to building the relationships needed to bring jobs to the state.

So far, one economic development deal has been announced from companies that officials talked to at the 35th annual meeting of the Japan-U.S. Southeast Association. Commerce announced last week that JTEKT Corp. is investing an additional $130 million in its Richland County plant that makes bearing hub units for auto makers, creating 175 jobs. Construction is expected to start in January.

Hitt has said South Carolina's relationship with aerospace giant Boeing Co. opened doors for the state at the Farnborough International Air Show in London, which he called the biggest marketing event of the year for his agency and the state's regional economic development alliances.

The London show's higher tab is largely attributable to an exhibit that cost nearly $58,000, including shipping.

In Tokyo, the state paid $675 for South Carolina's delegation to attend the monthly luncheon of the American Chamber of Commerce. Haley, the guest speaker, received a discount on her ticket, Love said.

Hitt has said the state hoped to capitalize on Japanese companies' desire to diversify following last year's earthquake-tsunami crisis, which shut down most of the country's nuclear reactors and left it more reliant on imports to supply electricity.

Japanese-based companies already rank second in foreign investment in South Carolina, behind Germany, according to Commerce.