Running for public office or being a lobbyist can cost you big time – especially if you don't file required paperwork with the State Ethics Commission.
As of Sept. 26, 314 candidates, public officials, lobbyists or their employers, organizations, county political parties and others collectively owed slightly more than $2.2 million in fines levied by the State Ethics Commission, according to the commission’s “Debtors” list.
Torlando R. Childress of Columbia, a Richland County District 1 school board candidate, tops the list, owing $194,458.
Four other people also are listed owing six-figure fines: Richard E.R. Johnson, a former Eastover Town Council member ($163,200); Paul M. Rivers of Ridgeland, a Jasper County sheriff’s candidate ($153,800); Louin B. Poston of North Charleston, a North Charleston City Council candidate ($151,400); and Arnold Karr of Columbia, a state superintendent of education candidate ($109,799).
Maurice Washington, a South Carolina State University board trustee, owes the least amount - $10 – according to the commission’s list. Half of those on the list owe more than $225 and half less, a review by The Nerve found.
The Nerve this week attempted to contact those who are listed as owing the largest fines, though none responded by publication of this story.
Contacted by The Nerve, Clarence McRae, a member of the Dillon County Democratic Party, said he wasn’t aware that his party owes $300 in fines.
Last year, lawmakers changed state law to cap fines at $5,000 per late filing. But Cathy Hazelwood, the State Ethics Commission’s deputy director and chief attorney, told The Nerve on Wednesday that the law doesn’t apply to those who had large fines before the law was changed.
“They didn’t get the benefit of the $5,000 max,” she said.
As of Sept. 26, 76 on the list owed $5,000 or more.
Under state law, elected officials and candidates can be fined $100 for missing deadlines to file their campaign-disclosure reports or statements of economic interest, which list public sources of income. The fine increases to $10 per day for the first 10 days after formal notice has been given that a report is late, and $100 for each additional day the required form is not filed, up to a maximum $5,000 per form.
The Ethics Commission’s “Debtors” list covers public officials, public employees, lobbyists, lobbyists’ principals, political committees and political candidates who have failed to pay late-filing penalties and enforcement fines, according to the commission’s website.
“If you haven’t filed a bunch of forms, then you will have a large debt,” Hazelwood said.
If the commission can’t collect the fines through letters, phone calls or personal contacts, it can file a judgment for the amount owed with the clerk of court or register of deeds in the county where the debtor lives, according to the commission’s website.
The commission also has referred debtors to the S.C. Department of Revenue, which, under state law, can deduct their fines from their income-tax refunds, according to the site.
Under last year's changes by lawmakers, the State Ethics Commission also can pursue criminal charges against those who fail to file required forms and reach the maximum civil penalty.
Hazelwood said as long as their fines aren’t paid, debtors will remain on the commission’s public list.
“If you’re judgment proof, don’t work and don’t pay state taxes, then the debt just sits out there shaming you,” she said. “There isn’t anything else we can do.”
Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.