South Carolina politicians often seem perplexed as to why the public is suspicious of them. I’d like to shed some light on that with one good example: spending from the campaign accounts. Until Renee Dudley of the Post and Courier exposed the shocking spending by Speaker Bobby Harrell from his campaign account (which led to some of the allegations contained in SCPC’s complaint against the Speaker, currently being investigated by the state grand jury), there was very little attention focused on the details of campaign expenditures. But the revelation than the Speaker repaid himself nearly a quarter-million dollars for travel expenses over a four-year period – much of which he claimed was related to his job as Speaker of the House – brought a new level of scrutiny and the exposure of yet another problem with state law.
One thing the public understands is that there’s something fishy when politicians raise and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep a job that pays a salary of around $10,000 a year (or $22,000 once you account for “in district” payments).
Campaign accounts are supposed to be for campaigning. The money raised is to elect someone to office and that means those who contribute support that particular politician. But state law doesn’t limit campaign account spending to campaigns. A sentence in the ethics laws allows an exception for “ordinary expenses incurred in connection with an individual’s duties as a holder of elective office.”
Therein lies the problem.
Campaign accounts – especially for the leadership – are routinely flush with cash, and that money is spent in ways that cannot possibly be considered ordinary or part of an official’s duties. Furthermore, if the expenses are ordinary and in connection with one’s official duties, they should be paid for with state dollars and subject to full public scrutiny rather than funded by one politician’s campaign donors – especially when so many of those donations are from special interest political action committees.
The Speaker’s outrageous claims that paying the expenses on his private plane was “ordinary” and in connection with his duties as Speaker are bad enough, but what’s worse is that much of that travel was described as “legislative travel” and yet the Speaker refuses to release any information about the specifics. If that travel was indeed “legislative,” the public has every right to know exactly what that means.
Some of the other descriptions from the Speaker’s campaign account include “legislative printing,” “legislative flowers,” “legislative retreat,” and so on. None of that spending should be off-limits for public scrutiny, but because it came from his campaign account the public has to settle for the limited descriptions given.
(Bear in mind that the Speaker raised close to $1 million – most of which he spent – for his campaign account for three election cycles from 2008-2012, but only had a competitive election in 2012.)
The Speaker is far from the only politician who uses his campaign account as a slush fund. Senator Hugh Leatherman’s spending on ornaments for his constituents totals more than $78,000 over five years. Is that an ordinary official expense or a campaign expense? Leatherman’s 2008 campaign disclosure shows he raised a whopping $768,562 in that election cycle even though he apparently had no opponent. For 2012 election cycle he raised $444,827 (according to his October 2012 pre-election disclosure) and that year, too, he ran unopposed.
Some of the descriptions on his campaign accounts include flags, framing, retirement parties for Democrat senators, staff lunches and a host of other expenses that raise questions as to whether they are either legitimate campaign expenses or legitimate official expenses.
The clause allowing elected officials to create slush funds has to be fixed. Either expenses are campaign-related – and thus funded by campaign donors – or they are truly official duties, and should be funded by taxpayers with full disclosure required. That’s an easy enough fix in the ethics law, but don’t look for politicians to jump on board with it without pressure and more scrutiny. They like having hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund their junkets and schmoozing, most of which they couldn’t get away with on the taxpayer dime and which don’t remotely qualify as campaign expenses.
Time to close that loophole.