House Members Fined $6,000 for Late Filings

March 17, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveOver the past three years, the S.C. House Ethics Committee levied $6,000 in fines to 27 current or former House members for late filings of campaign or income disclosure forms, according to The Nerve’s review of Ethics Committee records.

In total, $39,280 in fines was issued over the three-year period to 171 people, the vast majority of whom were candidates for House seats.

Under state law, elected officials and candidates can be fined $100 if their campaign disclosure reports or statements of economic interest, which list public sources of income, are not filed within five days after established deadlines.

The fine increases to $10 per day for the first 10 days after formal notice has been given that a report is late, and $100 for each additional day the required form is not filed.

Campaign and income disclosure reports are important because they allow the public to monitor whether officials have any potential conflicts of interest with campaign donors, public employers or employers with ties to government.

The Nerve reported last month that nearly $22,000 in ethics fines was sitting in a special S.C. House account, though Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken and the Ethics Committee chairman, said then he didn’t know who had paid the fines.

Smith at first told The Nerve that there were no records of the fines, but later clarified his initial remarks, saying his office did keep records but that he had never seen the list. He also said he didn’t know who controlled the special House account or how the money was being spent.

Smith said at the time the list would be reviewed by House Clerk Charles Reid before it was released to The Nerve. Reid recently provided The Nerve with copies of fine letters sent to House members and candidates over the three-year period.

Topping the list of fined lawmakers was Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, who was fined eight times for a total of $800.

“It’s an oversight, and I have to do better, and I will do better,” Sellers said when contacted last week by The Nerve. “I don’t expect any favorable treatment.”

Sellers said he paid the $100 fine in each instance.

Reid did not provide The Nerve with complete records of whether fines were paid, though he provided copies of receipts in a handful of cases. He also provided a separate list of 35 people who were issued public reprimand letters for not paying fines, though it was unclear how many of them paid their fines.

The only current lawmaker on the reprimand list is Rep. Tracy Edge, R-Horry. He was reprimanded by the Ethics Committee in August 2009 for failing to pay a $100 fine for filing a campaign disclosure report late, despite repeated attempts by the committee to contact him, according to his reprimand letter. Records indicate the fine was paid within a week of when the reprimand was issued.

The Nerve’s review found that Edge was fined at least six times over the three-year period for a total of $600. He did not return phone or written messages from The Nerve.

Other current House members who received multiple fines during the review period included: Terry Alexander, D-Florence (5); Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg (5); David Mack, D-Charleston, (4); Seth Whipper, D-Charleston, (3); and Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston (3).

“It’s not an excuse,” Mack told The Nerve this week. “I take full responsibility for it.”

Mack said he paid all of his fines.

Most of the other lawmakers with multiple fines did not respond to written or phone messages from The Nerve. A House Ways and Means Committee staffer said in a written response Tuesday that Limehouse, a committee vice chairman, could not immediately respond “due to the large volume of e-mails received each day.”

In a written reply last month to The Nerve’s questions about various House financial accounts, Reid said that revenues in the ethics fine account, which he noted include copying fees, “may be used for general operations, but as of this date no expenditures have been made from this fund.”

In a related matter, Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland and the House Judiciary Committee chairman, filed a resolution (H. 3445) in January that would allow House members to be fined up to $2,000 for “non-technical” ethical violations, which would exclude late-filing violations. That bill is pending before the House Rules Committee.

Harrison’s bill is modeled after a resolution (S. 326), sponsored by Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Wes Hayes, R-York, which passed the Senate in January. Under both resolutions, ethical violations against lawmakers would become a matter of public record upon an establishment of “probable cause” by the respective ethics committees.

Under the S.C. Constitution, the House and Senate police themselves for ethical violations. Other government officials’ conduct is monitored by the S.C. Ethics Commission. A state law passed earlier this session establishes the “probable cause” standard for public disclosure in cases handled by the commission.

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, prefiled a joint resolution (S. 324) in December calling for a constitutional amendment that would allow an outside state entity, including the S.C. Ethics Commission, to investigate legislators. But his bill hasn’t moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston.

Research assistants Ricky Sharp and Taylor Owens contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org