COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford shed his fiscal conservatism on several taxpayer-funded international trips, including a South American jaunt that included time with his mistress, choosing expensive first-class or business-class seats while his aides sat in coach.
Sanford, who once criticized other state officials for costly travel, charged the state more than $37,600 for one first-class and four business-class flights overseas since November 2005, expense records show. Other state employees flew in the back of the plane at a fraction of the price, according to the documents.
The Republican governor, who balked at taking federal stimulus money after arguing it was an unwise use of taxpayer funds, charged the state $8,687 for a Delta Airlines trip to Brazil last year that included a leg in business class, state expense records show.
That trip ended with the governor's now well-publicized visit to his Argentine mistress, Maria Belen Chapur, and marked what he says was the start of a nearly year-long sexual affair with the woman he's called his "soul mate."
Other state employees spent less than $2,000 each on economy seats for the Brazil flight, according to the records, released by two state agencies under South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act.
Sanford has since repaid $3,300 for part of that Brazil-Argentina trip.
His spokesman defended the governor's state travel as "very judicious."
"He compares very favorably with previous administrations on use of the state plane, and we believe he would compare favorably on his use of other state travel as well," spokesman Joel Sawyer said.
But Sanford's habit of more costly travel at the taxpayers' expense contradicts his claim of frugality. When first running for governor in 2002, the former congressman, who once boasted of sleeping on a cot in his office to save money, blasted incumbent state officials for their expensive flights.
"This kind of lavish spending with taxpayers footing the bill just doesn't make any sense to me," Sanford said in one campaign ad. "If I become your governor, I'll fix that problem."
State Senate Minority Leader John Land recalls the criticism that candidate Sanford heaped on others.
"I reckon he's a hypocrite," the Democrat said. "He goes before the Christian right and professes to be one thing and yet his conduct is something else. He goes before the people of the state and talks about his fiscal conservatism. But yet when you see him in action, he's going first class and spending the state taxpayers' money."
In interviews earlier this month with The Associated Press, the governor said he paid his own way when visiting his mistress during a New York rendezvous last September.
Asked if he flew coach, Sanford was quick to point out his personal thrifty side. "Yeah. You remember, I am paying," he said with a laugh.
State travel records for Sanford, who took office in January 2003, are available only back to the fall of 2005, and the documents show a persistent pattern of expensive state travel.
For example, he charged taxpayers $12,172 for travel to China in 2007, which included business-class accommodations on United Airlines, complete with upgraded food, drinks and an oversized reclining chair.
State Rep. Nikki Haley, a Republican, was a member of the state mission to China. A leading ally of Sanford's in the legislature, Haley had just wrapped up her freshman term when she was invited to attend the World Economic Forum with the governor.
She recalled a dozen or so delegates, mostly from the business community, but said she couldn't remember whether she flew coach or first class. Although expense records released by the state Commerce Department and comptroller's office do not show the type of ticket purchased, her flight cost $6,842.
"It was a big deal that we were the only state in the country that was asked to bring a delegation," Haley said. "It was very prestigious."
Other state employees who went on the trip charged the state between $1,905 and $3,963 each for their flights, the expense records show.
The records provide details of several other high-priced trips.
The state paid more than $5,000 for Sanford to fly to Poland in April, including at least part of the trip in the more expensive business-class seating. Using a different airline, Sanford's Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor also flew in business class on part of his journey, the records show. The state has not released all expense records from that trip.
Sanford spent $4,685 of taxpayer money on a Lufthansa business-class flight to Munich in April 2007.
The governor also flew in the most expensive "envoy class," also referred to as first class, on a U.S. Airways flight to London in 2006 at a cost of $7,065, according to the documents.