Side business puts SC governor's chef in hot water
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's chef has been barred from catering private events at the Governor's Mansion complex and told to reimburse the state after an Associated Press investigation questioned whether he was using his high-profile position for financial gain.
That action came Tuesday as The AP completed a review of nearly 2,000 pages of email and other documents produced in response to a Freedom of Information request. The government emails showed an aide to the governor's husband recruited clients for Geoff Sandifer's side business as a caterer, and Sandifer made it a point to play up his role as the governor's chef when courting clients. That aide sometimes touted Sandifer's advantages over other caterers, such as the ability to use a kitchen on the grounds that others couldn't.
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said chef Sandifer "has been ordered to stop using any state resources to conduct any non-state business. Additionally, he is no longer catering on mansion grounds and he will fully reimburse the state for the cost of using state resources." The 31-year-old Sandifer, who reports to first gentleman Michael Haley, now has to get approval before doing outside catering work.
Godfrey wouldn't make Sandifer or Emily Brandenburg, the mansion complex coordinator who referred business to Sandifer, available for interviews. Sandifer didn't respond to an email or phone messages Wednesday. Brandenburg referred questions to Godfrey.
State Ethics Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden said state ethics laws bar people from using a public position for financial gain, which includes using email accounts.
"If this is your main method of corresponding with your side business, then that could be a problem, especially if it's on state time," Hayden said.
Hayden said that each event Sandifer handled could bring a $2,000 fine if the work generated $50 or more for him or his business.
There were plenty of Sandifer-catered events at the Lace House, a yellow, three-story antebellum home across from the Governor's Mansion.
Of the 28 catered wedding receptions on Lace House grounds held this year or planned for next year, Sandifer had nine, or nearly one-third. On at least seven of those, he worked with frequent partner Corey Ellsworth. The next most-frequent caterer at the pricey and desirable location had five weddings.
Still, Ellsworth described an arms-length business relationship with Sandifer, calling him "contract labor."
Ellsworth said Sandifer had a limited role in recruiting people who rent the Lace House because that's Brandenburg's job. "So, really, when people get a chance to hear what caterer they should pick, that's coming from her mouth, not Geoff's," Ellsworth said.
Brandenburg took over at the mansion in January when Haley was sworn in. Brandenburg made it known that Sandifer was open for business. For instance, Louise Michaelis recalls visiting with Brandenburg as she planned her daughter's wedding.
"She told me about Geoff, that he was the chef at the governor's mansion and that he could do the catering, also," Michaelis said.
In some emails, Brandenburg makes it clear that Sandifer has advantages over other caterers at the Lace House. "The caterer unfortunately would not have access to the kitchen. They would have to bring it in unless you went with the governor's chef, who does catering on the side," Brandenburg wrote one client.
Sandifer actively pursued clients from his government email account day and night. In March, he asks a bride if she's chosen a caterer. "I have done and still do a lot of the on-premise weddings and wondered if you knew that and/or were interested in inquiring about my services," Sandifer wrote.
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