Since 2008, state Rep. Brian White, chairman of the S.C. House’s most powerful committee, has contributed at least $20,200 in campaign funds to a technical college foundation where his wife works as a fundraiser and a charitable organization where she is a board member, The Nerve found in a review of White’s campaign expense reports.
In addition, the Anderson County Republican, who heads the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, provided at least $7,750 in campaign funds during the period to the fundraising arm of the AnMed Health System – Anderson County’s largest employer, according to its website, which lists White and his wife as “Chairman’s Society” donors for giving between $2,500 and $4,999 annually.
The $27,950 in expenditures listed on White’s quarterly campaign reports are split mainly between payments labeled as “sponsor” or “scholarship,” and marketing or advertising expenses.
The Nerve’s findings highlight the longstanding problem of the lack of restrictions – and enforcement – on how lawmakers spend their campaign money. The Nerve in February, for example, reported that Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, donated $17,500 in campaign funds over a six-year period to a nonprofit school organization whose board of directors included his wife.
White, who became the Ways and Means chairman in May 2011 and serves with Leatherman on the state Budget and Control Board, contributed a total of $9,575 in campaign funds in 14 payments from April 9, 2009, through June 24 of this year to the Tri-County Technical College (TCTC) Foundation, records show. The single-biggest payment was $1,500.
White’s wife, Courtney White, is director of development at the foundation, according to the foundation’s website, and has worked at the college since June 2008, according to her online LinkedIn account, which listed her previous title as manager of donor relations and research.
She also is the vice chair of the nonprofit Anderson Interfaith Ministries (AIM), according to the organization’s website. Kristi King-Brock, AIM’s executive director, told The Nerve on Tuesday that Mrs. White works for Tri-County Technical College as a fundraiser; her employer is listed below her name on the AIM website.
Rep. White contributed a collective $10,625 in campaign funds in eight payments to AIM from March 3, 2008, through April 17, 2012, campaign records show.
“Brian has been a very ardent supporter of our organization,” King-Brock told The Nerve. “It’s nice when … a very important person takes the time to give back to the community.”
“Our whole goal is to move people toward self-sufficiency,” King-Brock continued. “I believe that’s one of the reasons Chairman White supports us so much.”
State ethics law (Section 8-13-700 of the S.C. Code of Laws) bans a public official from using his office to “obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”
Another ethics law (Section 8-13-1348) bans officials from using campaign funds to “defray personal expenses which are unrelated to the campaign or the office if the candidate is an officeholder,” nor can campaign funds be “converted to personal use.” That section also says campaign money can be used to “defray any ordinary expenses incurred in connection with an individual’s duties as a holder of elective office.”
Asked Tuesday by The Nerve if candidates for office can make donations with campaign funds to nonprofit organizations, Herb Hayden, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, which does not police lawmakers, said in a written response: “In order to make a contribution to a charitable organization, a 501c3, the campaign account must be in the process of final disbursement, not just (the candidate) no longer running for office. A person could be no longer running, but maintaining their campaign account for possible future campaigns.”
Candidates can contribute to nonprofits during their campaign cycles if the money is used specifically to promote their campaigns, such as politicians advertising in programs produced by high school football booster clubs, said John Crangle, attorney-director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, when contacted Tuesday by The Nerve.
It’s unclear on White’s campaign expense forms how his contributions to the TCTC Foundation, AIM and the AnMed Health Foundation were campaign-related. Efforts Tuesday by The Nerve to reach TCTC and AnMed officials were unsuccessful.
No one has accused White, an insurance agent who was first elected to the House in 2000, of breaking any state laws. He did not respond Tuesday to phone messages left by The Nerve at his home and legislative delegation office, or to cell phone text messages seeking comment about his campaign expenditures.
When the Ways and Means Committee elected White as its chairman in 2011, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said, “With the support his fellow committee members showed today, I am certain that Brian is ready to deal with the challenges ahead and do so as a fair chairman who holds our state’s best interest at heart.”
A Richland County grand jury on Sept. 10 indicted Harrell, who became the House speaker in 2005, on nine counts of using campaign funds for personal expenses, false reporting and official misconduct in office. He was suspended from office the next day and is free on bond pending his criminal trial, which hasn’t been scheduled.
The South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization, in February 2013 filed a public-corruption complaint against Harrell with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who turned it over to the State Law Enforcement Division. After a 10-month investigation, SLED turned its report over to Wilson, who announced in January that it had been referred to the state grand jury for further investigation.
Wilson, a Republican, in late July – without any public explanation or notice – transferred the case to 1stCircuit Solicitor David Pascoe, a Democrat, in Orangeburg. An agreement between Harrell and Wilson formalizing the transfer was secretly approved by a judge on Aug. 29, as first reported last month by The Nerve.
Following Harrell’s suspension from office, acting House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, appointed a special committee to recommend changes in the state’s ethics laws and Freedom of Information Act. A panel of that committee is scheduled to meet this afternoon.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.