September 16, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Add getting Gamecocks season football tickets in a luxury suite to the list of permissible perks for South Carolina's governor.

Gov. Nikki Haley and previous governors, going back decades, have routinely received the tickets as a benefit of occupying the Governor's Mansion. But Haley's office sought an opinion from the State Ethics Commission about the gift earlier this month following questions from a reporter, said her attorney, Butch Bowers.

The board on Wednesday unanimously approved allowing the university to continue the longstanding practice, calling it a gift to the office rather than Haley herself.

And what a gift it is.

The governor's office receives 16 tickets to each home game. Haley personally attended three of the seven home games last year, said Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams. Haley was out of the country and did not attend last Saturday's first home game of the season.

USC spokesman Wes Hickman says the university can't put a price tag on the tickets, because the governor's office has a private suite on a level otherwise reserved for news media, the visiting athletic director and others who don't pay. According to the Gamecock Club website, season tickets for non-suite seats directly beneath the press box cost $1,665 each.

USC also provides the governor's office four season tickets to men's basketball games, Hickman said.

The catch is the tickets' value far exceeds the limits set in the state ethics law for how much agencies that lobby state government can individually give elected officials. Those limits are $60 daily and $480 dollars total yearly.

Ethics Commission attorney Michael Burchstead called it a ''close question.''

Ordinarily, it's easier to discern when gifts to the governor's office that exceed the limit are nevertheless legal, he said, using the example of a painting that remains on the wall for future governors.

''These tickets have no long-term value by the office,'' Burchstead said. ''Once that Saturday comes and goes, the tickets aren't good to anybody except whoever enjoyed the game.''

But he concluded it's OK as long as USC continues to provide the tickets with no restrictions on their use, and Haley puts priority on using them for state purposes, such as hosting dignitaries or courting company executives.

''There's no better way to showcase the great things going on in our state,'' Adams said.

Burchstead recognized that Haley and her staff also personally use the tickets.

''This is limited to the circumstances here,'' he said, stressing the commission doesn't want agencies to cite the exception as an excuse for skirting the law.

Clemson University, Haley's alma mater, provides the office 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 suite as $2,894 in her 2015 ''statement of economic interest,'' submitted in March. Officeholders are required to list gifts, their value and who gave them in the annual disclosure.

The Ethics Commission voted on an advisory drafted by staff. Commissioner Frank Grimball said he felt uncomfortable voting on an opinion the same day he received it. But with football season already underway, Bowers asked commissioners to give ''certainty and finality'' to the question. Their next scheduled meeting is in November.

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