Side business puts SC governor's chef in hot water

November 23, 2011 - 7:15 PM

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.

Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for the governor, said Wednesday that Sandifer used state-owned kitchen appliances, linens, serving utensils and a computer for a side business, and the matter has been reported to the State Ethics Commission. Godfrey said the governor's office discovered the use of state resources after looking into the matter because of AP's inquiries.

The AP reviewed 2,000 pages of email and other documents produced in response to a Freedom of Information request. The emails show that an aide to first gentleman Michael Haley, who oversees the mansion, recruited business for Geoff Sandifer, while Sandifer made it a point to play up his role as the governor's chef when courting clients. In at least one instance, that aide touted his advantages over other caterers.

The records show Sandifer used his email account to conduct and recruit business day and night. Godfrey said there's no indication that Sandifer used food ordered on the Governor Mansion accounts.

Godfrey said 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 Michael Haley, now has to get approval before doing outside catering work, Godfrey said. The restrictions were made Tuesday.

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.

Godfrey said the governor's office will work with the state Ethics Commission to determine an appropriate reimbursement.

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.

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.

Godfrey said that wasn't accurate and all caterers are allowed to use the Lace House kitchen. Meanwhile, Godfrey said it appeared that Brandenburg only pitched Sandifer once "''and she understands it's not to happen again."

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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