Public Kept in Dark on House Ethics Fines

October 9, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SC House ChamberJordan Bryngelson of Ridgeville didn’t make it past the June 2012 GOP primary for the S.C. House seat held by Democratic incumbent Patsy Knight. After losing the primary, the Dorchester County Republican Party chairman said he closed his campaign account.

Or so he thought.

House records list Bryngelson as owing $20,400 in fines to the House Ethics Committee for “late/not filed” campaign-disclosure forms; the fines were issued from July 2012 through July of this year. Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve,Bryngelson said he wasn’t aware he owed anything to the Ethics Committee, adding no one from the committee ever contacted him about missed filing deadlines.

“I’m a little shocked,” he said. “I raised somewhere around $10,000 (in campaign contributions). We paid all our bills and closed out the (campaign) account.”

Bryngelson is not alone. The Nerve’s review of records provided by House Clerk Charles Reid under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act show that 33 House candidates, three former lawmakers and a sitting lawmaker collectively owe the House Ethics Committee $239,720 in fines, or $6,478 on average per person, issued since Jan. 1, 2012, mainly for late or unfiled quarterly campaign-disclosure forms.

The general public typically has no idea which House members are fined for ethics violations because the fines are not posted online by the House Ethics Committee. The Senate Ethics Committee began online posting of ethics fines after The Nerve last year reported about the lack of transparency on sanctions against lawmakers.

The 124-member House and 46-member Senate police their own members for ethics violations through their respective ethics committees. The State Ethics Commission has jurisdiction over the state’s nine constitutional officers, including the governor; local elected officials; and lobbyists and their clients.

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, House Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said he has “no problem” with putting House ethics fines and other sanctions against House members online, noting, “I’m trying to get as much as I can online.”

As for Bryngelson’s claim that he was not contacted by the House Ethics Committee about his fines, Bingham said he couldn’t comment on specific cases without researching them, though he added that as a general principle, “If they’re not getting notified, they’re not going to be assessed.”

Bingham, who took over the committee chairmanship in January from Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, said committee staff lawyers “are sending out notifications” about missed filing deadlines.

The unpaid fines range from $100 owed by Rep. Terry Alexander, D-Florence, to $20,400 owed individually by Bryngelson and five others, including former Rep. Eric Bikas, R-Pickens, who was AWOL for virtually all of last year’s legislative session, as The Nerve previously reported. Bikas did not respond to several phone messages from The Nerve seeking comment for this story.

Former Rep. Fletcher Smith, D-Greenville, owes the House Ethics Committee $5,100, issued in July 2012, for a “late/not filed” campaign-disclosure report, records show. Contacted recently by The Nerve, Smith declined to discuss specifics of that fine, saying only, “I’ll call the House Ethics Committee and check on it.” Records show he paid a separate $100 fine on Aug. 19 for a late campaign report.

Former Rep. Vida Miller, D-Georgetown, owes $200 in fines for late campaign reports; she paid a separate $100 fine last year, according to records.

Under state law, a flat $100 fine is assessed if the required report is not filed within five days after the filing deadline; the fines escalate to $10 per calendar day for the first 10 days after notice has been given by certified or registered mail, then increasing to $100 per each additional calendar day up to a maximum of $5,000.

“Just because it’s assessed doesn’t mean it has to be collected,” Bingham said, explaining it was his understanding that with a change in law two years ago, the amount of the fine to be collected could be negotiated up to the maximum amount allowed under the statute.

In contrast to the relatively large amount of unpaid fines, the amount of paid House ethics fines since Jan. 1, 2012, comes to $11,460 – less than 5 percent of the total amount of fines issued for the period, The Nerve’s review found.

Nine current House members – Reps. Tracy Edge, R-Horry; Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville; Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester; David Mack, D-Charleston; Joe Neal, D-Richland; Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg; Gary Simrill, R-York; David Weeks, D-Sumter; and Seth Whipper, D-Charleston – paid mostly $100 fines, records show. Horne and Whipper, both of whom are attorneys, were fined for late yearly income-disclosure reports, known as statements of economic interests; the rest were fined for late campaign-disclosure reports.

Another six former House members, including Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican from Lexington County, also paid $100 fines for late campaign reports. Haley’s $100 fine was paid in April 2012, more than a year after she took office as governor, according to House records.

Haley in a July 15 “consent” order with the State Ethics Commission agreed to pay a $3,500 fine for a reduced list of gubernatorial campaign-reporting violations– after more than a year of secret negotiations between her campaign and the commission, The Nerve previously reported.

Contacted recently by The Nerve, Edge, who paid $2,010 in fines for late campaign reports – $1,900 of that amount in February – said a computer glitch in the campaign reporting system resulted in it “picking up the wrong figure.”

“I had no idea I was racking up fines, or I wouldn’t have let it get that high,” he said. “I worked with (House Ethics Committee) staff through it, but I still had to pay it. It was a Catch 22: Either I had to file a false report or pay it (the fine).”

Edge said sitting lawmakers have an incentive to pay their fines quickly, noting that if they don’t pay their fines within two quarterly cycles of the alleged violation, they will face public reprimands.

“No one wants a public reprimand on that,” he said.

Bingham said that sanction also applies to candidates. But for now, the general public can’t easily know if reprimands are issued because Bingham’s committee doesn’t post them online.

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