Day One of Ford Ethics Hearing Takes Titillating Turns

May 31, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Robert FordUpdate: 5/31/13, 11:30 a.m. – Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland and a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, announced during this morning’s ethics hearing that he had received a letter of resignation, effective immediately, from Sen. Ford. The hearing into the alleged ethics violations is continuing.

For four-plus hours Thursday afternoon, the S.C. Senate Ethics Committee heard testimony – some of it fairly sensitive for a legislative hearing – alleging how over a period of four years Sen. Robert Ford used campaign funds for such things as car payments, gym memberships, adult superstore items and a male-enhancement drug.

The 64-year-old Charleston Democrat also is accused in a formal ethics complaint to have:

  • Diverted some $19,000 in campaign contributions to his personal account;
  • Used his campaign account as a personal ATM, including multiple over-the-limit cash withdrawals while attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, and numerous transfers from campaign funds to his personal checking account when it was or was about to be overdrawn;
  • Falsified campaign reports for expenditures he never paid to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars; and
  • Taken out an $8,000 campaign loan from a bank that never got deposited to his campaign fund but went, instead, for a constituent’s home repairs.

What’s more, all the above represents only half of what Ford is charged with, as the committee continued the proceeding to this morning after having heard four of the eight counts of ethical violations.

Ford has denied all of the allegations, contending that at worst, he was a sloppy record keeper.

“Y’all are trying to make me look like a crook,” Ford said during a tense exchange during which expenditures for the male-enhancement drug Cyvita; the Lion’s Den, an adult superstore in Bowman; and another adult business, “The Pleasant Gift, LLC,” which goes by the name “Badd Kitty,” in Charleston, were discussed.

After a mid-sentence intercession from Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington and an attorney, though not a member of the Ethics Committee, Ford refrained from speaking for the rest of the hearing, instead letting his Charleston attorney, William Runyon, explain that some of the purchases were gifts for campaign staff. Ford claimed he didn’t know what Cyvita was.

That explanation, however, left Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland and a committee member, searching for answers.

“Attorney Runyon, at some point you will give us some kind of clarity on this and the staff?” Jackson asked of the sex-related purchases. “Because let me say I appreciate your sensitivity to this. But Mr. Runyon, at some point you must give us some explanation of this. This is the most baffling of all. I want to make sure because this is one I really need your help on, that we really need your explanation on.”

In testimony that what was at times tedious and other times titillating, Ethics Committee attorney Lyn Odom meticulously laid out example after example of the first four allegations – so much so that during each of the four presented, committee member Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg and an attorney, called for and received an early end to Odom’s presentation to expedite the process.

In addition to the allegations that Ford used campaign funds for inappropriate uses and deposited thousands of dollars in campaign donations to his personal checking account, Odom said the senator falsely claimed thousands of dollars in campaign expenditures not paid, including claiming $15,273 in payments to the U.S. Postal Service while only being able to show $700 through bank records subpoenaed by the Ethics Committee.

In one heated exchange while attempting to demonstrate that the errors presented could be construed as unintentional, Runyon approached Odom and challenged him face-to-face while talking about the original $8,000 loan issue that launched the committee’s investigation in which Ford is alleged to have misappropriated money and falsified reporting documents.

“Did you think he was trying to con you?” Runyon asked.

“Yes, I did,” Odom said. “I do.”

In another exchange, Odom stated he believed that Ford deliberately listed a car payment on his 2001 Infiniti as a campaign-expense report charge for a Homeless Veterans Campaign.

“You’re talking about intentional misrepresentation and fraud,” Runyon responded. “It’s our position that this is simply bad bookkeeping.”

The thrust of Ford’s defense thus far has been he didn’t receive enough notice of the violations to correct them beforehand, and that everything can be summed up by honest accounting errors.

“There is no questioning the fact that (Ford’s) accounting is a nightmare,” Runyon said.

Whether Ford will be seen as the victim of an incompetent accountant – himself – or a repeated, willful violator of state ethics laws will unfold this morning at 9 when the 10-member committee, chaired by Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry and an attorney, resumes its hearing.

The final four allegations to be heard include failure to report numerous contributions, expenditures, various campaign loans and campaign loan repayments, and willfully altering campaign banking records “with intent to deceive the committee,” the complaint states.

If the committee finds Ford guilty of any of the charges, it can assess a fine of up to $2,000 per charge, issue a public reprimand, or recommend expulsion from the Senate, where Ford has served since 1993. The panel also can dismiss any or all of the ethics charges, and must turn over any potential criminal matters to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.

Reach Ron at (803) 200-8809 or at ron@thenerve.org. Follow Ron on Twitter @RonAiken. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.