By RICK BRUNDRETT
State law says you can only spend campaign money on expenses related to your campaign. Does that include gifts for constituents?
The 124-member S.C. House and its staff can thank Rep. Alan Clemmons for building their wardrobes every year – courtesy of his campaign donors.
At the beginning of every year, the Horry County Republican and House Rules Committee chairman says he orders a batch of men’s neck ties and women’s scarves to present to House members and staff, as well as to “various dignitaries throughout the year.”
From January 2008 through January of this year, Clemmons paid a total of $29,297 from his campaign account to the Milano Neckware Fashion Co. in Taipei, Taiwan, for the clothing, The Nerve found in a review of his quarterly campaign-expense reports. He placed at least eight orders during the period, listing individual expense entries ranging from $2,295 to $4,835.
In a written response to The Nerve, Clemmons said the ties and scarves “prominently feature the seal of the South Carolina House of Representatives and have a tag sewn to the back stating, ‘Presented by Rep Alan Clemmons.’”
Exactly how many have been ordered over the years is unknown, though based on an invoice that Clemmons provided to The Nerve showing that 200 ties and 100 scarves were ordered last December, the total amount likely is at least a couple thousand.
“These are permissible expenditures by the Campaign in accordance with House Ethics Committee Advisory Opinion 93-6 because these presentations are generally accepted practices of House members and are incidental and unique to membership in the House,” Clemmons, an attorney, said in his written response.
Grassroots activists and government watchdog organizations, including the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – contend there has been a long history of misuse of campaign funds by lawmakers largely because they are allowed under state ethics laws to interpret the law for themselves and police themselves for ethical violations through their respective ethics committees.
Those panels typically handle complaints against their fellow lawmakers in secret and routinely in recent years have issued, through staff lawyers, secret informal opinions to legislators seeking to justify their actions, as The Nerve previously has reported.
Government watchdogs say state ethics laws need to be changed to end lawmakers’ self-policing powers and to limit the spending of campaign funds to campaign purposes only.
Other Questionable Expenses
Besides the tie and scarf purchases, The Nerve’s review of Clemmons’ campaign reports filed online with the State Ethics Commission found other questionable expenditures, including:
- More than $25,000 in reimbursements to himself from his campaign account from July 2009 through last June, including a payment of $11,500 in October 2012 for unspecified “legislative event services.” Clemmons said the $11,500 covered the production costs of a pro-Israel rally at the State House in August 2011, when the Legislature was not in session. Of the total reimbursements, a collective $9,000 was listed in three separate 2011 entries as “loan payment.”
- More than $28,000 in “legislative travel” or “legislative conference” expenses, or reimbursements to himself, for trips from July 2009 through last June to various out-of-state destinations, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Dallas, Tampa, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Israel, though the purposes of the trips weren’t specified in his campaign reports. The Nerve last week reported about a campaign-financed trip to Israel earlier this month by a dozen state lawmakers, including Clemmons, who led the group.
- More than $27,000 paid from his campaign account between April 2012 and last April to state Rep. Heather Ammons Crawford, R-Horry, for unspecified “campaign services.” Crawford was elected in 2012 to fill the seat of Thad Viers, who resigned in March 2012 while facing a harassment charge involving his ex-girlfriend. The Nerve’s review found that Clemmons has paid Crawford a total of more than $142,000 since April 2008 mainly for “campaign services” or “contract services” or “reimbursement.”
Crawford did not respond to a phone message Saturday from The Nerve seeking comment. Clemmons told The Nerve on Sunday that Crawford was “paid for consulting services she provided to me, just as other legislators are paid for political consulting work, all of which was approved by the House Ethics Committee.”
He did not name any other consultant-lawmakers or cite any formal or informal opinions from the committee supporting his position.
‘Gravity of the Questions’
Initially contacted last Monday by phone, Clemmons, who sits on the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which nominates judges for election by the General Assembly, and served as its chairman this year, requested that The Nerve submit questions to him in writing, noting the “gravity of the questions potentially.”
In a three-page written response issued Saturday night and a follow-up email reply Sunday morning, Clemmons defended the legality of his campaign spending, citing formal House Ethics Committee opinions and state ethics law for most of his answers.
Clemmons, who was first elected to the House in 2002, repeatedly cited Section 8-13-1348 of the S.C. Code of Laws, which bans the use of campaign funds for personal expenses that are “unrelated to the campaign or office.” Former longtime House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigned from office in October after pleading guilty to six counts under that section for misspending campaign funds in connection with the use of his private plane. His plea and resignation stemmed from a February 2013 public-corruption complaint filed by the South Carolina Policy Council with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Besides Harrell’s expenditures, The Nerve this year has investigated questionable spending of campaign funds by other lawmakers, including:
- Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee and chairman of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee. The Nerve in October reported that Sandifer spent nearly $18,000 over three years on credit card payments for unspecified conference expenses – on top of about $9,500 that the sponsors of 12 mostly in-state conferences spent on him.
- Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson and the House Ways and Means Committee chairman. The Nerve in October reported that White has contributed at least $20,200 since 2008 to a technical college foundation where his wife works as a fundraiser and a charitable organization where she is a board member.
- Former Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, who resigned from office on Dec. 9, just hours after The Nerve sought comment from him on a number of findings from a Nerve investigation, including the collective payments of $24,215 in campaign funds in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections to his wife and a company registered with the state by his wife.
Crawford, who was convicted in 2012 of willfully failing to file state income-tax returns; House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville; and Clemmons co-sponsored a proposed House rule in October that would have required anyone testifying before a House committee and subcommittee to first be sworn in – and face possible felony charges depending on the testimony given. A special House panel rejected the “oath” rule earlier this month after The Nerve questioned its legality.
In his written response to The Nerve, Clemmons listed 2013 and 2014 trips, paid with campaign funds, to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Missouri and Dallas to attend conferences or meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Virginia-based, nonprofit, free-market organization that proposes model legislation for states.
Clemmons noted he is ALEC’s current “National Chair of State Chairs and incoming Board member of the Council,” and cited a formal 1992 House Ethics Committee advisory opinion (Opinion 92-40), which allows campaign funds to be spent on ALEC dues, to justify his trip expenditures.
He said he also spent campaign funds to attend an annual conference in Salt Lake City sponsored by the Utah-based American Lands Council (ALC), noting he “actively” participates on the ALC’s “Legislative Committee.” The ALC on its website describes itself as a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “secure local control of western public lands by transferring federal public lands.” Clemmons said he made a “presentation on eastern state legislative support of local control of public land” at the annual conference he attended.
Last January, he said he attended the firearm industry’s annual trade show in Las Vegas to “meet with CEO’s and corporate decision makers of firearm manufacturer and suppliers,” adding the trip “followed my recruitment of a Connecticut firearms manufacturer which moved its headquarters and manufacturing facilities to South Carolina.”
When questioned about the reimbursement of $1,753 to himself from his campaign account last June for what he labeled on his campaign report only as “legislative travel,” Clemmons said he reimbursed himself for “out-of-pocket expenses” for “air travel and car rental expenses to facilitate a meeting in New Mexico with Congressman Steven Pearce on campaign and legislative matters.”
Clemmons did not respond to follow-up questions about what specifically he discussed with Pearce, a Republican, or why he couldn’t talk with the congressman by phone or computer video link.
Clemmons also defended the $11,500 reimbursement to himself from his campaign account in October 2012 for coordinating a pro-Israel rally at the State House. He said because of his “status as a State Representative,” he was invited by Glenn Beck, a nationally known political commentator, to participate in Beck’s “Restoring Courage Rally” on Aug. 24, 2011, which was broadcast from Israel. He said in conjunction with the rally, he hosted a “South Carolina Stands With Israel Rally” on the State House steps, which included a satellite uplink of remarks made by him and other rally participants.
Clemmons said he used personal funds to pay the Carolina Film Group for the cost of the State House production – and provided The Nerve with a copy of the invoice – “with the intention of being reimbursed by the Committee to Reelect Alan Clemmons.” He said those expenditures were “permissible because they were sufficiently tied to the duties of my office … and because it resulted in the public broadcast and publication of my name and public title,” citing formal House Ethics Committee advisory opinions from 1999 and 2002 (Opinions 99-1, 2002-1).
Opinion 99-1, however, deals with contributions of campaign funds to nonprofit organizations and the printing of House members’ names in those groups’ publications, while Opinion 2002-1 covers the purchase of tickets with campaign funds to events sponsored by non-political organizations. Asked how those opinions specifically applied to Beck’s pro-Israel rally, Clemmons replied, “The point is that campaign funds may be used if it results in the publication of the member’s name and public title, which occurred in this instance.”
Clemmons didn’t give specifics when asked how his Israel-related trips paid with campaign funds – including an October 2013 trip to Israel and a trip last May to Washington, D.C., where he said he was installed as national chairman of the Israel Allies Legislative Caucus – related to his duties as a state lawmaker representing one of South Carolina’s 46 counties.
“As for the legislative issues, they are all related to issues that are important to the people of SC, and they are or may become the basis for legislation in the future,” he said.
Regarding his purchase of neck ties and scarves with campaign funds, Clemmons cited a formal 1993 House Ethics Committee advisory opinion (Opinion 93-6) to justify those expenditures.
That opinion, however, deals with the use of campaign funds to purchase frames for resolutions passed by the House and presented to constituents, not the campaign-financed purchase of gifts for House members and staff.
The Nerve also informed Clemmons of an April 4, 1996, memo from the House Ethics Committee, which banned House members from using campaign funds to buy gifts for other House members or staff.
But Clemmons stood by his position, contending that the 1993 opinion “stands for the broad proposition that campaign funds may be used for expenditures that are ‘services generally accepted of a House member’ and opportunities unique to membership in the House, not just the narrow purpose of framing resolutions.”
The Nerve asked Clemmons to cite any informal or formal opinions specifically allowing the use of campaign funds for the purchase of clothing for House members or staff. He didn’t provide any such opinions in his follow-up response.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.