Lawmakers routinely tap campaign funds for ‘other’ expenses

August 27, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Politicians typically spend campaign funds on things like signs, billboards, TV, radio or internet advertising.

But S.C. lawmakers often use their campaign money for other expenses, including out-of-state trips, donations to their favorite charities, membership dues, or gifts to their staffs and constituents.

And it’s all legal – at least according to the legislative committees that have interpreted state ethics laws for lawmakers. Critics contend the laws are weak, and that lawmakers collectively have shown little desire to strengthen them.

State law, for example, bans using campaign funds for personal expenses, though that money can cover costs related to a politician’s “office,” which isn’t defined.

The 46-member Senate and 124-member House historically have policed their own ethical conduct through their respective ethics committees. Those committees have given lawmakers plenty of ethical wiggle room over the years.

Take longtime Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, for example.

The Nerve’s review of his quarterly campaign-expense reports filed this year found that he spent $13,973 in campaign funds in January on “constituent gifts” through ChemArt, a Rhode Island-based ornament company. He also spent another collective $1,625 on “constituent meals” in February and March at the upscale Palmetto Club near the State House.

Leatherman also used a total of $2,750 in campaign funds for two “sponsorships” at The School Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports Florence Public School District One and whose board members include Leatherman’s wife, Jean Leatherman, according to the organization’s website.

His campaign expense reports filed with the State Ethics Commission also show he gave $1,000 to Katrina’s Kids, a nonprofit organization started by fellow Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, and chairwoman of the Senate Family and Veterans’ Services Committee.

In addition, Leatherman dropped another $1,500 in campaign funds for a “sponsorship” at the Florence Rotary Club, $865 for membership dues and a “membership luncheon table” at the Florence Chamber of Commerce, and $500 for membership dues with Florence County Progress, the private-sector arm of the Florence County Economic Development Partnership.

Leatherman had similar expenses last year, as The Nerve reported. As has been his longstanding practice with The Nerve, he didn’t respond Wednesday to a written request for comment.

Leatherman isn’t the only legislative leader who used campaign money for non-campaign purposes in recent months, The Nerve’s review found.

Spending campaign funds on nonprofit organizations, churches, schools, historical landmarks and “families in dire situations” is allowed under a 1997 written Senate Ethics Committee opinion that was issued when Leatherman was chairman of that committee. Citing that opinion, the House Ethics Committee in a 2016 advisory opinion wrote that House members can contribute to charitable organizations with campaign funds if the lawmaker or an immediate family member doesn’t “derive a personal and financial benefit.”

In a 1993 opinion issued when Leatherman was the Senate Ethics Committee chairman, the committee acknowledged that state ethics law on the use of campaign funds for office-related expenses is “intentionally broad,” and that the determination whether the spending is allowed is “by design left largely to the discretion of the member.”

Christmas gifts, trips, payments to relatives

Current lawmakers continue to spend campaign funds on office-related expenses, though it’s often difficult to glean specifics from their campaign expense reports.

House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, for example, paid a total of $3,042 in campaign funds to Patrick Dennis, who is listed on the Legislature’s website as the House Rules Committee’s chief of staff and general counsel, mainly for an unspecified meeting last December costing $2,260 and a $535 luncheon in February, Lucas’ expense reports show.

Neither Lucas nor Dennis, who previously was the House clerk, responded Wednesday to The Nerve’s written requests seeking details on those expenses.

Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who is chairman of the House Ethics and budget-writing Ways and Means committees, reimbursed himself $1,048 in campaign funds last December for unspecified gifts to staff of both committees, records show. He didn’t respond Wednesday to a written message seeking comment.

Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, who chairs the House Regulations and Administrative Procedures Committee, collectively spent $705 in campaign funds in December for gifts under seven entries labeled only as “Staff Christmas.” In a written response Wednesday, Huggins said the three single-largest entries in that category were Christmas gifts for committee and other House staff, noting all expenses were “allowed” by the House Ethics Committee.

Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, who is chairwoman of the House Education and Public Works Committee, told The Nerve on Wednesday the House Ethics Committee approved her earlier campaign-funded “sponsorships” at the Middle Tyger Community Center, where she serves as a board of trustees member.

Allison said she assumed the earlier Ethics Committee approval covered a $356 campaign-fund donation in March to sponsor a luncheon at the center. She added she receives “no perks” as a center board member.

Other lawmakers have used their campaign funds to cover travel expenses. For example, former Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, who was the House Rules Committee chairman before abruptly resigning his House seat last month, spent a total of $6,926 from last November to March on Delta Air flights, records show. He also listed other travel-related expenses in November and December connected to luxury hotels or other locations in Israel, Europe and Santa Barbara, Calif.

No details were provided in his campaign expense reports about the purpose of those trips.

The Nerve previously reported about legislative trips to Israel in 2014 and Egypt last year that were led by Clemmons and funded with campaign dollars. He didn’t respond Wednesday to a written message seeking comment on his most recent expenses.

The Nerve’s latest review also found that several lawmakers have used campaign funds to pay or reimburse relatives. Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, for example, paid or reimbursed Joan Scott, a total of $1,250 from last October to April, mainly under entries labeled only as “Admin.” His campaign expense reports didn’t specify the relationship; other online records list Joan Scott as his wife.

Sen. Scott did not respond to a phone message Wednesday seeking comment.

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, who is the House majority leader, paid Diane Simrill a total of $1,800 in campaign funds last November and May this year for “notary application processing,” according to his expense reports.

In a written response Wednesday to The Nerve, Simrill said the payments were made to his mother, who “handles the notary applications for the (legislative) delegation,” adding, “It calculates to about $75 per week.”

Contacted Wednesday, John Crangle, a longtime state government watchdog who is the government relations director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, said when the state Ethics Act initially was being written about 30 years ago, there was debate about “how restrictive the rules should be as it deals with campaign money.” He said he and others at the time contended that campaign funds should be used for campaign expenses only.

“Until such time when campaign money is limited to campaign uses only, you’re going to have people who will continue to stretch the envelope,” said Crangle, who made an unsuccessful bid for a state House seat in 2018.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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