Former Senator Ford Says He Was ‘Sacrificial Lamb’

October 23, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Robert FordEx-Sen. Robert Ford, who resigned in May amid a Senate Ethics Committee hearing into allegations that he used campaign funds for personal expenses, claims the committee “needed a sacrificial lamb and they chose me.”

“They decided to lynch me in public,” the 64-year-old Charleston Democrat told The Nerve when contacted Tuesday. “That’s totally unfair.”

Asked about the status of a criminal investigation into the allegations, Ford referred those questions to his attorney, William Runyon of Charleston, who told The Nerve that a State Ethics Commission investigator, acting on behalf of the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, recently contacted Runyon about “some of the expenditures.”

“They (the expenditures in question) were very minor, and we cooperated the best we could with that,” Runyon said.

“There was some extremely bad bookkeeping and some expenditures that shouldn’t have been made,” Runyon said, though he added, “Our position is while there may have been some violations of the rules, we don’t believe there were any criminal violations.”

Asked if he believed Ford would face criminal charges, Runyon replied, “I don’t think so, but … as a practical matter, we’ll deal with it as it comes.”

Contacted Tuesday for an update on the case, Leacy Burke, a spokeswoman at the Attorney General’s Office, gave the following brief written reply to The Nerve: “Former Senator Ford’s case is still being investigated by SLED.”

State Law Enforcement Division spokesman Thom Berry did not respond Tuesday to written questions from The Nerve.

The Senate Ethics Committee forwarded Ford’s case to Attorney General Alan Wilson for an investigation following a two-day hearing on May 30 and 31. The 10-member committee found that there was “overwhelming” and “substantial” evidence to support the committee’s eight-count complaint, though it imposed no sanctions on Ford, given his sudden resignation.

Ford was accused of using campaign funds since July 2009 for such things as car payments, gym memberships, adult superstore items and a male-enhancement drug. He also was accused, as The Nerve previously reported, of:

  • Diverting approximately $19,000 in campaign contributions to his personal account;
  • Using his campaign account as a personal ATM, including multiple over-the-limit cash withdrawals while attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January;
  • Falsifying campaign reports to reflect thousands of dollars in expenditures that he never paid; and
  • Taking out an $8,000 campaign loan from a bank that was used for a constituent’s home repairs.

Ford, who had been in the Senate since 1993 and was a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, denied all of the charges, though he resigned from office after the first day of the Ethics Committee hearing. Runyon explained to the committee that some of the purchases were gifts for campaign staff.

Runyon on Tuesday backed up his client’s statements about being a “sacrificial lamb.”

“The Senate wasn’t preparing to pass anything (on ethics reform), and the governor was jumping up and down on it, so they delivered a head on a platter, and my client was the head on the platter,” Runyon said.

A main ethics-reform bill (H. 3945) stalled in the Senate at the end of this year’s regular legislative session in June, though it can be take up again when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Current state law allows the Senate and House ethics committees to police their respective members for ethical violations. Under Senate rules changes that took effect in January 2011, ethics charges against senators are to be made public upon a finding of probable cause by the committee, which was done in Ford’s case in April.

Left in the Dark?

The Nerve on Tuesday interviewed Ford to get his response to comments made about his ethics case during an Oct. 8 public hearing of a special Senate study committee on ethics, chaired by Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who took over this year as chairman of the standing Senate Ethics Committee.

During the hearing, John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, said he believed that if Ford had been “called in and warned about the kind of things he was doing early in the process, that he would still be here today.”

“I think earlier enforcement would have prevented the magnitude and aggravation of the problems he had,” said Crangle, an attorney.

Rankin, also a lawyer, replied, “At least in the present makeup of the Senate Ethics Committee, I can assure you that every effort was made to reach out to give (Ford) the benefit of the doubt.”

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richand and a member of both the study and standing ethics committees, repeated his point three times to Crangle: “I don’t want to reveal anything, but just for the record, you do not know that he had not been called in before, right?”

“The only thing I know is what’s in the public record,” Crangle replied.

Rankin and Jackson did not return phone messages Tuesday from The Nerve.

Ford on Tuesday disputed Jackson’s and Rankin’s statements during the Oct. 8 hearing.

“Not one member of that (Senate Ethics) committee met with me in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 or this year,” he said. “They treated me like I was a nobody.”

Ford said a member of Rankin’s staff emailed him earlier this year requesting his bank statements for 2008 through 2010, though he added he didn’t know then why the committee specifically wanted the records. Discrepancies between his bank statements and campaign reports were revealed during his May hearing.

“If they had told me what they didn’t want me to do, I wouldn’t have done it,” Ford said Tuesday.

Typically over the years, ethics complaints against senators were handled privately by the Senate Ethics Committee, Ford said. He noted that committee staff during the time when Sens. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Wes Hayes, R-York, were the committee chairmen routinely worked with him and other senators to make sure their campaign reports complied with state law.

He recalled that when he was a freshman senator, Leatherman, who remains on the Ethics Committee and also is the Senate Finance Committee chairman, called him in privately and informed him that $4,000 in separate $1,000 contributions that he had received from a single donor, which he said he had reported on his campaign forms, violated state contribution limits, and asked him to return $3,000 of the total to the donor. He said he returned the requested amount, adding he didn’t fully understand the contribution-limit law then.

‘Constituent Services’

Contacted Tuesday, Hayes, who was the Ethics Committee chairman for 12 years and remains on the committee, said the committee was not aware of the latest allegations against Ford until recently.

“Had he asked us, ‘I want to do X, Y and Z, we would have told him, ‘You can’t do X, Y and Z,” Hayes said.

Hayes said Ford’s ethics case “kind of came to light somewhat inadvertently,” though he couldn’t provide details, referring questions to committee lawyer Lyn Odom. Odom declined comment Tuesday, instructing The Nerve to contact Rankin.

Rankin earlier said questions over Ford’s campaign filings were discovered during a routine audit of his campaign records, according to media reports. Rankin during the Oct. 8 hearing said he plans to propose legislation that would require the filing of bank statements with a senator’s campaign- or income-disclosure forms.

To Ford, the allegations against him by the Senate Ethics Committee were not ethical violations.

“Ethics has to do with public dollars,” he said. “What I did was constituent services – the best in America. Some of that money was my own personal money.”

He said, for example, that it was no secret to his fellow senators that when he was in the Senate, he routinely sent birthday and Christmas cards to his constituents. He noted he recently used his credit card to purchase $8,300 worth of birthday cards and envelopes for his former constituents to “show them appreciation.”

“I’ve used no public money to do nothing wrong,” he said. “I use my own money to show people love.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.