Double Standards for the Big Boys
By Ashley Landess
What do former Lieutenant Governor Ken Ard, former Senator Robert Ford and Representative Harold Mitchell have in common? All are politicians who were investigated on ethics charges, and none of them had any real power.
Ard was indicted and pleaded guilty to seven counts of ethics violations, including converting campaign funds to personal use and false reporting of his campaign funds. The Ard investigation took nine months, involved the state grand jury and resulted in Ard’s resignation. The personal expenditures listed in his indictment came to around $7,000.
Ford’s case was turned over to the Attorney General’s office by the Senate Ethics Committee after it was revealed that the senator used his campaign funds for, among other things, purchases from an adult store and a car payment. This misspending was allegedly discovered after a “routine audit” by the Committee (a process I don’t recall ever being aware of prior to the Ford case). Ford was also accused of misreporting his campaign funds.
Mitchell’s alleged transgressions came to light during a tax investigation, and revealed both misspending and failure to produce receipts for his campaign expenditures. Mitchell pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and his campaign spending is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee.
And most recently, the House Ethics Committee found probable cause to pursue a complaint against Rep. Bill Chumley (R-Spartanburg) for using the state plane (at a cost of around $6,400) to fly in an expert to testify on his nullification bill, which the committee apparently does not believe qualifies as state business.
Bottom line? When it comes to these less powerful politicians, there doesn’t seem to be much confusion over whether campaign spending was permissible, and the line between state business and personal/political purposes doesn’t appear to be murky at all.
But that’s only half the story. How does the other half fare with ethics charges?
After a secret investigation of and hearing for former Senator Jake Knotts, the Senate Ethics Committee issued a statement finding multiple counts of violation of the state ethics law, including receiving illegal contributions over the limit. The result? A public reprimand and an admonishment to “do better.”
And yet senators have bragged about what a great job they are doing holding their colleagues accountable.
Senator Hugh Leatherman, the powerful chair of the Senate Finance Committee who has ownership in a company that has made around $30 million from state contracts over the years, failed to report his ownership stake in the company until recently. Senator Leatherman also sits on the Budget and Control Board (which oversees procurement) and the board of the State Infrastructure Bank (which funds road projects).
Rep. Stephen Goldfinch has said publicly he intends to plead guilty to a federal charge of misbranding drugs, but he toldThe Nerve he’s pretty confident that won’t get him suspended from the House because it wasn’t a felony charge or a crime of moral turpitude.
Speaking of “moral turpitude,” Representative Kris Crawford was convicted on four counts of failure to file his taxes and still continues to serve in the House. Apparently, it is up to the discretion of the Speaker of the House to call for suspension of members.
And speaking of the Speaker – the subject of a criminal complaint filed by SCPC – the investigation into multiple allegations of ethics violations is in the hands of SLED and our Attorney General. It’s up to the AG to decide if the law has been broken based on the evidence presented, but it will be a tough sell to conclude that the Speaker’s reimbursement of $300,000 from his campaign account – much of it used to pay the taxes, depreciation and loan on his private plane, and none of it specifically documented – doesn’t rise to the level of Ard’s flat-screen TV. And if it is clearly not “official business” to fly a witness into the state for testimony before a House committee, then it will be difficult to claim it is official business to own and maintain a private airplane.
Obviously all ethics matters should be investigated, regardless of the amount of money or the position of the politician involved. But action on ethics charges has been almost non-existent in this state until public exposure and pressure forced it, and even now it appears to be selectively taken.
There should be no spending of campaign funds for anything but campaigns. All income to lawmakers should be reported to disclose all conflicts of interest. And the legislative ethics committees should have only the authority to handle internal matters, not the violation of state law. That’s at least a start toward ensuring that justice is applied to all. In the meantime, the public has no choice but to trust those in charge of the system to protect citizens from corruption at the highest levels of our government.