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Ethics Fines Rack Up for S.C. Senators, Candidates

Since 2008, 42 current and former state senators, as well as Senate candidates, collectively have been fined $64,804 by the Senate Ethics Committee, according to committee records obtained recently by The Nerve.

Only four of the 62 fines issued to senators from April 2008 through June 30 of this year were for reasons other than late filings, according to committee records provided to The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. The Senate changed its rules in 2011 to allow its Ethics Committee to issue civil penalties of up to $2,000 for violations other than late filings or failure to file required documents.

State law allows the Senate and House to police their own members for ethical violations through their respective ethics committees.

Slightly more than half of the Senate's ethics fines – 36 – were paid during the five-year period, including a total of $14,374 paid by seven current senators, The Nerve's review found.

They include Sen. Ross Turner, R-Greenville, who was hit Sept. 24 with a fine of $5,574 – the largest single or collective fine among active senators, records show. He also received a separate $100 fine last year for a late-campaign-report violation.

Of the $5,574 fine, $4,100 was for failing to disclose 41 “in-kind” contributions from his insurance agency, The Turner Agency Inc., during his 2012 primary election campaign, and the remainder ($1,474) for accepting $29,490 over the statutory limit for in-kind contributions from his business, according to a sanction letter from the Ethics Committee.

For senators and House members, campaign contributions are capped at $1,000 from an individual per election cycle. That includes “in-kind” contributions, which are defined under state law as “goods or services which are provided to or by a person at no charge or for less than their fair market value.”

Turner in July 2012 reimbursed his insurance business $30,574 for “excessive contribution,” according to his campaign-disclosure form filed with the State Ethics Commission. In its September sanction letter, the Senate Ethics Committee said it “considered such (reimbursement) a mitigating factor in determining the appropriate penalty to impose for this violation.”

The committee also noted that part of the total fine in the amount of 5 percent of the excess contribution ($29,490) was “appropriate.”

Turner received no public reprimand for the ethical violations, and his fine received little, if any, media coverage at the time. He did not respond this week to three phone messages from The Nerve.

After Turner, Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, had the second-highest fine – $5,390 – among active senators during the five-year period, The Nerve’s review found. Unlike in Turner’s case, the Senate Ethics Committee issued a public reprimand of Williams and imposed the maximum civil penalty of $2,000 for each of two instances in which the committee alleged that Williams falsely reported campaign loan payments in 2009 and 2010, according to his reprimand, issued last Sept. 28.

Williams’ total fine also included $1,390 for 10 "excess contributions" during last year’s primary election, according to his reprimand.

Compared to Turner’s fine, Williams’ ethics case received more media coverage. Contacted this week by The Nerve, Williams, a deputy county administrator in Marion County, said he was “guilty as charged,” though he added his mistakes were “an oversight.”

“If we were trying to hide something, we wouldn’t have reported it,” Williams said. “That’s how they (Senate Ethics Committee) caught it. … We made a mistake, and we put a better system in place.”

Williams’ campaign-disclosure report for the last half of 2012 shows that he paid his entire fine with campaign funds on Oct. 10. His Sept. 28 letter of reprimand from the Ethics Committee noted, “In your discretion, you may pay this civil penalty with campaign funds, provided that you report the expense and record it as ‘payment of a campaign fine for ethics violation’ on your next Campaign Disclosure Report.”

The reprimand letter was signed Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, who was then the Ethics Committee chairman. Contacted Thursday by The Nerve, Hayes, an attorney, said he would "prefer” that any ethics-reform legislation next year prohibit the payment of ethics fines with campaign funds.

“That hits home,” he said when fines have to be paid out of pocket.

A main ethics bill (H. 3945) stalled in the Senate at the end of this year’s regular legislative session in June, though it can be take up again when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Besides Turner and Williams, the other five current senators who received fines from the Senate Ethics Committee over the five-year period included, according to committee records:

  • Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper and a pastor, fined a total of $1,980 from 2010 into this year for six late campaign reports and a late income-disclosure statement. He didn’t respond Thursday to a phone message from The Nerve;
  • Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg and an automotive engineer who does work for NASCAR, fined $950, which represented 5 percent of $19,000 in “excess contribution” from a personal loan given to him during his 2008 campaign, according to a May 1, 2012, sanction letter from the Ethics Committee;
  • Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster and president of a building supply company, fined $160 this year for a late income-disclosure statement;
  • Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield and an attorney, fined $110 last year for a late campaign-disclosure report; and
  • Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens and owner of a farm and garden business, fined $110 last year for a late campaign-disclosure report.

In addition to those seven senators, former Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who resigned May 31 amid a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into allegations that he used campaign funds for car payments, gym memberships, adult superstore items and a male-enhancement drug, was fined $100 on April 16, which was paid, for a late campaign-disclosure report, records show.

Hayes, who remains on the Senate Ethics Committee and served as its chairman for 12 years, told The Nerve that he’s not surprised that sitting senators typically pay their ethics fines, given that if they don’t, “we can kick them out of the body.”

Getting Senate candidates to pay their fines, however, is more of a challenge, said Hayes, noting there is a lack of enforcement mechanisms for that group. He suggested that ethics-reform legislation to be considered next year allow the Senate Ethics Committee to place tax liens on unpaid fines.

The Nerve's review of the Ethics Committee's list of fines found that of the $64,804 in fines issued since 2008, $46,460, or about 72 percent, has not been paid.

Chet Royston, a Republican who lost last year’s primary race for the seat currently held by Democrat Floyd Nicholson of Greenwood County, owes the most in fines - $15,000 – for late filings of three separate campaign-disclosure reports, according to the Ethics Committee's list.

The second-largest debtor on the list is Thomas M. Bennett, a Republican who lost a 2008 primary race for the seat currently held by Democrat Creighton Coleman of Fairfield County. Bennett owes a total of $13,200 for late filings of four campaign-disclosure reports, the list shows.

Under state law, failing to file required a quarterly campaign-disclosure report or annual income-disclosure statements by certain deadlines can result in an initial $100 fine, which increases with each day of the continuing violation, capped at $5,000. Regarding campaign-disclosure reports, Hayes told The Nerve that the Senate Ethics Committee has interpreted the law to apply to each quarterly report.

Efforts to reach Royston and Bennett this week were unsuccessful. Phone numbers that the candidates listed on their state income-disclosure forms were not in service when tried by The Nerve.

The Nerve's review of the Senate Ethics Committee's records found a spike in the number of fines issued this year and last, and no outstanding fines from 2008 through 2011. In a written response this week, Lyn Odom, the committee's research director, said he had no information on unpaid fines before 2009, "assuming there were even any."

As for the recent jump in the number of fines, Odom said 2012 was an election year, and that "many candidates failed to to timely file reports."

"Many of those candidates have not closed out campaign accounts and some continue to file untimely reports," he said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

 

Accountability Ethics General Assembly Legislation Transparency

Sen. Robert Ford Sen. Shane Martin Sen. Ross Turner Sen. Creighton Coleman Sen. Wes Hayes Sen. Clementa Pinckney Senate Ethics Committee Sen. Danny Verdin Sen. Greg Gregory Sen. Kent Williams