COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A government watchdog group, contrary to the opinion of South Carolina's ethics agency, is insisting Gov. Nikki Haley refund taxpayers for a trip to North Carolina in June.
The watchdog group also is questioning the legality of an agreement she signed last month on reimbursing costs for her security detail.
Attorney General Alan Wilson was asked to weigh in Wednesday as the Republican governor launched a statewide tour pushing legislators to pass ethics reform in coming months.
Haley called the Oct. 4 agreement her latest effort to clear up gray areas of the law.
"In this last instance, we said, 'If it's gray, let's fix it.' We got together with SLED. We got together with the Ethics Commission. We made sure we put it in black and white so it can be done," she said.
But Common Cause director John Crangle contends taxpayers are still subsidizing Haley's campaign-related trips, through the law enforcement officers who accompany her and the state vehicle they drive.
State law bars taxpayer funds or public equipment from being used for campaign events. But it also requires a security detail for the governor, and that takes precedence, said Ethics Director Herb Hayden.
Reimbursements allow the separate laws to work, he said.
"Facts are stubborn things, and the facts here are pretty simple: the governor worked with the ethics commission, took their advice and guidance on how to proceed, and followed the law," Haley campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said about the lingering criticism.
Following the agreement, Haley's campaign paid $1,179 for the miles she rode to and from her in-state fundraisers between January 2011 and June 2013. Her campaign previously argued that, based on the practices of previous governors, she didn't need to start paying for mileage until she officially announced her re-election bid in August. But Hayden told The Associated Press that, under state law, she never stopped being a candidate, so those reimbursements should have started when she took office.
Haley's attorney, Butch Bowers, said in September he would seek another opinion from Hayden's board. But the agreement made that moot.
A breakdown provided to AP shows that more than half of those 42 reimbursements made Oct. 7 cover less than 20 miles — seven are for only a fraction of a mile. The agreement put in writing that, if she has an official event that day, such as a bill signing or ribbon cutting, she pays only for miles from it to the campaign function.
Even with the agreement, gray areas remain, Hayden said Thursday.
Other trips Haley has not reimbursed for include an event with a Republican who unsuccessfully ran against the state Senate's top Democrat, a fundraiser for Pat McCrory as he ran for North Carolina governor, and in-state events for Mitt Romney, according to an AP review of Haley's calendar obtained via a public records request.
Hayden said he insisted the agreement specify that the governor reimburse for traveling to anyone's campaign event, not just her own, according to his reading of the law. Going forward, she'll do that, he said.
"It says an election campaign. That's not limited just to her campaign," he said.
Because agents accompany Haley everywhere, he said, the agreement outlines that only extra costs need to be reimbursed, such as meals, lodging and overtime tied directly to a campaign event.
Questions on how Haley was reimbursing surfaced in August, when the State Law Enforcement Division confirmed that an agent driving Haley on June 27 in Greensboro, North Carolina, crashed into a concrete pole, causing $4,000 worth of damage to the vehicle. The trip was not part of the $7,610 in reimbursements that Haley's campaign paid in July for her out-of-state fundraisers over the previous fiscal year.
Crangle and other critics demanded Haley reimburse taxpayers for what they still consider a campaign function, noting that campaign staff accompanied her and she received donations during the trip. Campaign finance records show she collected $34,500 from North Carolina residents June 27-28.
Based on initial reports, Hayden said, he also thought she needed to reimburse for the trip and directed agency attorney Cathy Hazelwood to write a letter to the governor's office saying so.
"Reimbursement to the state for the costs of this travel is required, notwithstanding your spokesman's quote to the contrary," Hazelwood wrote in the Aug. 28 letter obtained through a public records request to the ethics agency.
Hayden said that was written before he learned from Bowers why Haley was there. Haley spoke at a dinner during a two-day conference benefiting an organization supporting McCrory's agenda. Because it was not a fundraiser for any person's campaign, it wasn't a campaign event, and the letter was no longer necessary, Hayden said.
In an email, Bowers told Hayden the checks came after an economic development meeting earlier that day at Boeing supplier New Breed Inc.
"The company and some of its employees gave contribution checks to Governor Haley's campaign representatives," Bowers wrote. "However, this was not a campaign event in any sense of the word."
Her calendar confirms she was at New Breed in High Point before heading over to the Grandover Resort.
Regardless, Hayden says, receiving a check doesn't make an event a fundraiser. He's likened it to a politician who speaks at a Rotary Club meeting and ends up getting donations from attendees.
Hayden has held firm in his opinion, rejecting Crangle's request that he reverse himself. And the ethics board has backed Hayden's position.
The Ethics Commission considers the matter closed, Hayden wrote in an Oct. 15 letter to Crangle.
So Crangle took a different route. At the request of Common Cause, Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto sent a letter to Wilson seeking his opinion. Wilson's office would say only that he received it.
Crangle calls the agreement suspect. Beyond seeking reimbursement on the June trip, Crangle believes an entire trip should be reimbursed, not just the leg to a fundraiser. And he questions the need for 24/7 security for the governor.
"To me, the whole trip is contaminated," he said. Otherwise, the governor can "set up a phony baloney event any place she wants to raise money."
Haley's campaign ties the criticism to her Democratic rival, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who is again opposing her in 2014.
"South Carolina would be far better off if Sen. Hutto and his friend and ally Vince Sheehen spent their time fighting to pass ethics reform instead of playing political games," Godfrey said.