May 28, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Years later, state lawmaker owes tens of thousands in ethics fines

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

As of 2015, state Rep. Cezar McKnight owed a total of $60,190 in civil fines to the state Senate Ethics Committee after being publicly reprimanded for campaign reporting violations when he was a Senate candidate.

To date, only $1,039.12 of his debt has been collected, according to committee records.

In a recent interview with The Nerve, McKnight, D-Williamsburg, an attorney who has been a House member since 2014, said he doesn’t know exactly how much he still owes.

“I’m working on trying to find a way to get this resolved because I think it’s unfair,” he said. “I’m actively trying to get redress of my grievances.”

As The Nerve initially reported last May, the Senate Ethics Committee referred McKnight’s unpaid ethics fines to the state Department of Revenue’s (SCDOR) debt-collection program, which involves deductions from income tax refunds.

McKnight’s current balance with the SCDOR is $59,150.88, according to information provided this week to The Nerve by the ethics committee. His fines are the highest collective amount on the committee’s online fines list, though the list hasn’t been updated since June 2018.

The Nerve for more than a year has been inquiring about when the list will be updated. For the May story, a committee lawyer said he had not yet finished an audit of those who owed fines.

The Nerve last Friday submitted a formal request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act for records on fines issued by the committee since October 2017, and the status of those who had unpaid fines on the 2018 list. No updated list had been released by publication of this story.

Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, who is the committee chairman, didn’t respond to a recent written message from The Nerve seeking comment about why the list hasn’t been updated since 2018.

The list shows that besides McKnight, state Rep. Carl Anderson, D-Georgetown, owes $6,000 in civil fines since 2015 after the committee publicly reprimanded him for violating state ethics law. At Anderson’s request, the committee put him on a payment plan that requires minimum monthly payments of $100, as The Nerve reported in May, though he had made only one payment of $100 as of this week, committee records show.

Anderson, who is a minister and an insurance agent, according to the Legislature’s website, didn’t respond to recent written messages from The Nerve seeking comment.

The 2018 list also shows several former senators with unpaid civil fines, including Democrat Robert Ford of Charleston, who resigned in 2013 amid a committee investigation into allegations that he used campaign funds for personal expenses. Ford had a collective $30,160 in unpaid fines as of 2018, though the committee in a written statement last month to The Nerve said no former or current senators have “any outstanding fines.”

‘Justice without mercy’

Most of McKnight’s fines, as well Anderson’s fines, stemmed from their unsuccessful campaigns in the special Democratic primary election in September 2014 for a Senate seat that was won by current Democratic Sen. Ronnie Sabb of Williamsburg County. McKnight was first elected to the House in November 2014; Anderson became a House member in 2004.

The 10-member Senate Ethics Committee, then chaired by Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, in August 2015 publicly reprimanded McKnight for violating state ethics law and imposed a collective $54,000 in civil fines – $1,000 for each of 31 unreported campaign expenditures totaling $25,881, and $1,000 for each of 23 unreported campaign contributions totaling $9,361 – related to the 2014 special primary election, according to the written order.

The order said the $54,000 was in addition to $6,190 in collective fines previously imposed by the ethics committee for McKnight’s failure to “timely report” quarterly campaign disclosure reports related to the 2012 primary election for the same Senate seat.

State law requires that candidates for elected office file quarterly reports with the State Ethics Commission listing details of campaign contributions and expenses.

McKnight told The Nerve that when he was running for the Senate seat, he withdrew money from his general fund at his law practice – which he noted he legally could do because he owns the practice and is its sole attorney, and did not touch separate client accounts – and deposited those funds into his campaign account.

“I spent my own money,” he said.

But the Senate Ethics Committee considered his law practice as a separate entity, which meant under state law, it could contribute a maximum $1,000 to his campaign, McKnight said, adding, “What they (the committee) wanted was the additional step of (the campaign money) going from my general fund (at the law practice) to my personal (bank) account to me.”

“Most importantly, I had to self-finance the vast majority of my campaign,” McKnight said in his written defense, which was included with the 2015 committee order fining him. “So in my haste to pay for items for campaign activities, I would write checks from either my personal bank account or my practice’s General Account to pay for items for the campaign.”

McKnight’s written defense also said the reporting issues related to the 2014 special primary election campaign were “simply inadvertent oversight on my part.”

In his recent interview with The Nerve, McKnight said as an attorney, he didn’t want the ethics committee to treat him “any differently under the law.” But he added that “justice without mercy is tyranny when you see somebody who might have technically violated the law but didn’t violate the spirit of the law.”

Asked how the SCDOR is collecting his unpaid fines, McKnight replied that he didn’t know exactly, though he noted: “I get paid for being in the House. I can see that I’m not getting the same amount of money that I was getting paid before.”

Don’t pay, can’t play

The Nerve last week revealed that U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, a Berkeley County Republican who is an ex-S.C. House member, owes a total of $11,500 in civil fines to the state House Ethics Committee for campaign reporting violations related to her former position, according to the committee’s top lawyer.

In a letter last August to Mace, state Rep. Jay Jordan, R-Florence, who is the House Ethics Committee chairman, warned that her debt could be submitted to the SCDOR for collection under a state law that allows the agency to deduct certain debts from income tax refunds.

He also said in the letter that the SCDOR has the authority to collect Mace’s debt through the “garnishment of wages, seizure of bank accounts, sales of real and personal property, and the revocation of any license.”

Jane Shuler, the committee’s chief legal counsel, told The Nerve in a written response last week that the committee referred Mace’s unpaid fines late last year to the SCDOR’s debt-collection program for “her 2022 tax return,” adding that the committee has “not received anything yet from DOR for Mace’s fines.”

The same day The Nerve’s story was published, the committee released an updated fines list showing Mace’s current debt.

Having unpaid ethics fines could have other consequences for state and local political candidates. A bill filed last month by Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, would prohibit anyone with an “outstanding debt” to the either the Senate or House ethics committees, or the State Ethics Commission, from becoming a candidate in a primary, general or special election.

Under the bill, if an appeal of a fine is denied, the candidate would have 30 days to pay the debt or reach an agreement on a payment plan. Failure to pay the fine or comply with the payment terms would result in the candidate “being ineligible to serve and shall be removed by the Governor for cause.”

The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rankin.

(UPDATE: 2/18/22 – Several hours after this story was published, the Senate Ethics Committee provided a partially updated fines list to The Nerve showing that Rep. Cezar McKnight’s civil fines totaled $60,770, with $1,619 of the debt collected.)

Nerve intern Charlotte Morrison contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-3948273 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.


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