Legislative Leaders Still Spending Campaign Funds on Spouses’ Charities

April 20, 2015

Investigative Reports

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SC State HouseIn his latest campaign-disclosure report submitted on April 6, Sen. Luke Rankin listed just two expenditures for next year’s election cycle: a $135 framing expense and a $1,500 contribution to the Art Museum of Myrtle Beach.

It just so happens that Lindsey Rankin, wife of the Horry County Republican and Senate Ethics Committee chairman, is vice chairperson of the museum’s board of trustees, according to the museum’s website. Her husband made the $1,500 contribution to the museum on March 11, according to his quarterly campaign-disclosure report submitted to the State Ethics Commission.

Rankin isn’t the only legislative leader to spend campaign funds on their spouse’s charities, The Nervefound in a review of the latest quarterly reports filed this month.

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and the Senate Finance Committee chairman, for example, on March 6 donated $1,500 to The School Foundation, where his wife, Jean Leatherman, is listed as a member of the group’s board of directors. As of last year, the foundation had awarded $962,352 in grants to Florence School District 1, according to its website.

Also on March 6, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, contributed $500 as a “Connector Run Sponsor” with the charitable organization Anderson Interfaith Ministries, where his wife, Courtney White, serves as vice chairperson, according to the group’s website.

The Nerve in 2014 first reported about Leatherman’s and White’s spending of thousands in campaign funds on their spouses’ charities in recent years. In White’s case, he also has contributed thousands of dollars in campaign funds in recent years to a technical college foundation where his wife works as a fundraiser; no such donations were listed in his most recent quarterly report.

The Nerve on Friday sent written messages to Leatherman, White and Rankin seeking comment on their April quarterly reports. None responded.

State ethics law (Section 8-13-1348 of the S.C. Code of Laws) bans officials from using campaign funds to “defray personal expenses which are unrelated to the campaign or the office if the candidate is an officeholder,” nor can campaign funds be “converted to personal use.” Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigned from office in October after pleading guilty to six misdemeanor counts under that section, which stemmed from a public-corruption complaint filed in 2013 by the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization.

But under state law, legislators police themselves for ethics violations through their respective House and Senate Ethics Committees. Leatherman, for example, serves on the Senate Ethics Committee and is a past committee chairman.

A 1997 advisory opinion by the Senate Ethics Committee allows senators to donate campaign funds to churches, community organizations, schools, political parties and “families in dire situations,” contending those expenses are a “longstanding function” of the lawmakers. In contrast, the State Ethics Commission, which has jurisdiction over elected officials other than state legislators, in a 2003 advisory opinion said charitable donations “may only be made at final disbursement.”

Lawmakers’ self-policing authority wouldn’t be abolished under a House omnibus ethics bill (H. 3722) that recently was amended by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is on the calendar to be debated by the full Senate. The South Carolina Policy Council in 2012 called for an end to the Legislature’s self-policing powers and for public officials to disclose their private sources of income, as part of its eight-point reform agenda.

At a 2013 meeting of a special Senate ethics study committee, Rankin, the then-committee chairman, said, “Not one person has mentioned anything to me … to urge me to do anything” on ethics reform.

The Nerve reported then that Rankin, an attorney, had received more than $2.8 million in legal fees from workers’ compensation cases from 2007 through 2012, according to his annual income-disclosure reports. Under state law, the S.C. Workers’ Compensation Commission, which approves attorney fees in those cases, is appointed by the governor with consent of the Senate; Rankin sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which screens commission candidates.

In 2013, The Nerve also reported that a concrete company with ties to Leatherman had received more than $30 million in state contracts over the previous 20 years. During The Nerve’s investigation, Leatherman, who had been Florence Concrete Product’s longtime president, revealed in his income-disclosure report filed that year that he still had financial ties to the company.

The Nerve’ review of campaign-disclosure reports filed this month, which covered the months of January through March, by Leatherman and 27 other standing legislative committee chairpersons found campaign expenditures ranging from $0 listed by Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee and the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman; to $14,217 reported by Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry and the House Rules Committee chairman.

Of Clemmons’ total expenses, $3,951 was to the Milano Neckware Fashion Co. in Taipei, Taiwan on Jan. 13 for a “Leg. Presentation.” The Nerve in December revealed  that from January 2008 through January 2014, Clemmons collectively paid $29,297 from his campaign account to the clothing company.

At the time, Clemmons told The Nerve that at the beginning of every year, he orders a shipment of men’s neck ties and women’s scarves to present to House members and staff, and to “various dignitaries throughout the year.”

In his first two versions of his latest campaign-disclosure report, filed on March 30 and April 2, Clemmons didn’t report any purchases from the clothing company. But after The Nerve on Friday afternoon sent Clemmons an email asking him about the absence of that purchase, he twice amended his report to reveal the expense, though he didn’t reply to The Nerve.

Next to the clothing purchase, the second-largest expense listed in Clemmons’ April report was $3,400 to the Bowers law firm in Columbia. Attorney Butch Bowers represented Gov. Nikki Haley in her 2012 hearing before the House Ethics Committee, which twice cleared her of several alleged ethics violations while she was a House member.

South Carolina Policy Council research intern Danny Morris contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.