Secret Opinion Targets Senate Challengers

April 20, 2016

Investigative Reports

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By RON AIKEN

 Decision compelling candidates and members to submit banking documents sent before filing period

Luke Rankin

Amid an ethics reform debate in which legislators are passionately arguing for how transparent and effective their current system of self-policing is, the South Carolina Senate in March issued a secret opinion that could negatively affect challengers looking to unseat incumbents.

According to a memo from Senate Ethics Committee chairman Luke Rankin (R-Horry) obtained by The Nerve dated March 10, “Pursuant to Senate Ethics Committee Advisory Opinion 2016-2, (March 1, 2016), all candidates, former candidates, members and former members of the South Carolina Senate with an open campaign banking account” must submit copies of their monthly campaign banking statements to the committee “for all campaign checking, savings and money market accounts.”

Failure to do so, the memorandum reads, may result in the committee issuing a warning/reminder with a five-day extension or, if that doesn’t work, filing a formal ethics complaint against the individual and subpoenaing the candidate/member’s campaign bank records.

By law, candidates for and members of the Senate only have to report quarterly statements about balances, expenditures and contributions to the South Carolina Ethics Commission. The law requires only that members/candidates keep copies of the campaign bank records for four years, not submit them directly to the ethics commission.

When reached Tuesday, Sen. Wes Hayes, a longtime Ethics Committee chairman before Sen. Rankin who still sits on the committee, said there has never before has been an obligation to turn bank records over directly to the Senate Ethics Committee.

“This is the first time it’s been done,” Hayes said. “You normally just submit your information to the ethics commission, but I don’t know that anyone is really looking (at them).

“So nobody is getting (the actual bank statements) currently.”

The ruling doesn’t so much adversely affect sitting members already accustomed to quarterly reporting and who have known about the change since March as it does candidates who may have had exploratory campaign accounts before the March filing period opened, especially since the memorandum was sent out on March 10 before anyone could have filed – meaning there was no way for the Senate Ethics Committee to have even known where or to whom to send the memo for candidates since they could not be aware of who planned to run.

Because of that, any candidates who have not been made aware of the new policy already are 10 days late as of  today (April 20) and potentially are subject to a warning and/or formal complaint since the first filing period was April 10 for account activity covering the previous October-December period. Approximately 19 Senate Districts are either contested or are being vacated with contenders.

One Senate candidate who asked not to be identified said he never got the memo, though the issue didn’t apply to him since he did not open an account before the filing period.

“I think it may be targeting challengers, especially if they’re not aware (they have to submit those records to the Ethics Committee),” he said.

Hayes agreed that challengers are the most likely not to have either received the memo or complied if they had.

“Some of the candidates are slow getting them in,” Hayes said. “I think the members have gotten them in.”

Dean Fowler, who is running for the District 31 seat held by Senate Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, had no idea the memo even existed until it was read to him by The Nerve.

“I did not get that memo at all,” said Fowler, who is the Florence County Treasurer. “I guess I’m lucky I didn’t have a campaign account already open.

“It’s sad that the only ones who know what’s going on are the ones who are plugged in and can make rules up without telling anyone.”

Fowler said the entire system is geared to frustrate challengers.

“I drove down to Columbia to the (S.C) Ethics Comission to get help filing and they couldn’t give me any help,” Fowler said. “I asked to use their computer and they said I couldn’t for campaign reasons and they sent me to the public library.

“So I had to go down to the public library and call them from there to walk me through it. It’s out of control.

Clouding the issue even more is that unlike the House, which archives its ethics opinions on its website going back to 1992, the Senate does not publish its advisory opinions online. That makes it impossible for any candidates to even learn of the new policy in addition to the public knowing how many opinions are issued in a given year, when they come out, or what they cover at all.

“It’s sad that so much information is held back from the people to protect a few,” Fowler said. “It’s insane.”

 

Neither Rankin, who is facing a challenge to his District 33 seat from Scott Pyle, nor Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office returned phone calls for this story.

Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411. Email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC. Like what we’re doing? Sign up for email alerts to receive breaking news at the top right-hand side of the page.