Will Sen. Ford’s Ethics Case Push Ethics-Reform Bill Across the Finish Line?

June 3, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SC Senate ChamberThe referral of an ethics complaint against Sen. Robert Ford to the S.C. attorney general could reignite the push to pass a stalled ethics-reform bill in the final days of the 2013 legislative session.

The Senate Ethics Committee’s case against the Charleston Democrat concluded Friday after the 64-year-old  lawmaker, first elected in November 1992, resigned – an act described in the committee’s final order as “tantamount to the ultimate sanction” of expulsion from the Senate.

The 10-member committee, chaired by Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, referred its complaint to Attorney General Alan Wilson, who turned it over to the State Law Enforcement Division before the end of the day.

Whether Ford, who denied the allegations contained in his ethics complaint, will face any criminal charges remains to be seen.  But his case has thrown a spotlight on the issue of whether lawmakers should police themselves for ethics violations. The Senate is expected this week to debate whether that authority should be limited– as well as other ethics-reform issues – when it takes up H. 3945.

The Senate on Thursday – the same day Ford’s ethics hearing began – voted to place the bill on its “special order,” or priority, calendar.

“Any incident of that type is an impetus for change,” Travis Medlock, a former state attorney general and co-chairman of the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform, told The Nerve Friday.

It’s unclear, however, if there is enough time left to pass any ethics-reform legislation this year, given the General Assembly has not yet settled on a state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and that the regular legislative session ends Thursday.

Ford resigned effective immediately Friday morning after testimony Thursday during his ethics hearing alleged that over four years, he used campaign funds for such things as car payments, gym memberships, adult superstore items and a male-enhancement drug.

Ford was absent from Friday’s hearing. His attorney, William Runyon of Charleston, said he was being examined by doctors in Columbia and Charleston for possible heart problems, though he was stable.

Among other things, Ford was accused in the Senate Ethics Committee’s complaint to have:

  • Diverted some $19,000 in campaign contributions to his personal account;
  • Used his campaign account as a personal ATM, including multiple over-the-limit cash withdrawals while attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, and numerous transfers from campaign funds to his personal checking account when it was or was about to be overdrawn;
  • Falsified campaign reports for expenditures he never paid to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars;
  • Taken out an $8,000 campaign loan from a bank that never got deposited to his campaign fund but went, instead, for a constituent’s home repairs; and
  • Altered copies of campaign banking records and then submitted those altered copies to the Senate Ethics Committee.

In closing remarks to the committee, Runyon admitted to “terrible accounting” but rejected allegations that his client engaged in fraud.

The committee, however, determined that all eight counts in the complaint were proven and ordered “by the overwhelming competent and substantial evidence warrants the immediate referral herewith to the Attorney General’s Office of all unredacted documents entered into these proceedings.”

Other Ethics Cases

Ford is the second lawmaker this year to have an ethics complaint referred to the Attorney General’s Office. In February, the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – submitted a formal ethics complaint against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, to Wilson’s office, which turned it over to the State Law Enforcement Division.

Contacted Friday by The Nerve, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said in an email that “the investigation is continuing” in the case regarding Harrell, though he did not comment further.

Although the facts of Harrell’s and Ford’s cases are different, the applicable state ethics laws are similar in some instances, such as for example, the law (Section 8-13-1348) that bans the use of campaign funds for personal use.

The Policy Council’s complaint against Harrell, who has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing, asked that Wilson’s office investigate whether the House speaker:

  • Used his office for his financial benefit or that of his family business;
  • Used campaign funds for personal purposes;
  • Failed to maintain required records documenting his campaign expenditures;
  • Adequately itemized campaign reimbursements as required by state law; and
  • Violated state law by appointing his brother to a state judicial screening panel.

Documents obtained by The Nerve and the Policy Council raised questions about Harrell’s reimbursement of campaign funds for certain expenses connected to the use of his private airplane, and his dealings with the state Board of Pharmacy regarding various matters involving his pharmaceutical business.

The controversy over Harrell’s use of his private plane started when the Post and Courier reported in September that Harrell had offered no details to the Charleston newspaper regarding more than $325,000 that he had reimbursed himself from his campaign account since 2008. The Associated Press later reported that Harrell returned about $23,000 to his campaign account after informing the State Ethics Commission that he didn’t have records supporting that expense amount.

In February, The Nerve reported, based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that high-ranking officials with two state pharmacy organizations in 2010 expressed concerns then that Harrell was using his position as House speaker to help his Charleston-based pharmaceutical company, known as Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals.

Harrell and Ford are the latest in a string of South Carolina elected officials who have faced ethics issues, including:

  • Then-Gov. Mark Sanford , a Republican, who agreed in March 2010 to pay $74,000 in fines to settle ethics charges brought by the State Ethics Commission alleging the improper use of campaign money, the purchase of business-class airline tickets in violation of state law, and the improper use of state aircraft. Sanford admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to pay the fines; he also agreed to pay $66,223 to reimburse the state’s investigative costs. No criminal charges were brought against Sanford, who was elected last month to fill the vacant seat of former U.S. Congressman Tim Scott, now a U.S. senator;
  • Former Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, who was publicly reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee in September 2010  and ordered to repay nearly $25,000 in illegal campaign contributions. The committee found that Knotts did not convert campaign funds for personal use, and no criminal charges were filed against him. He was defeated last year in his re-election bid by Republican Katrina Shealy;
  • Former Republican Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who in the span of one day in March 2012 resigned from office; pleaded guilty in Richland County Circuit Court to seven criminal charges relating to campaign-finance violations investigated by the State Ethics Commission, including using campaign money for personal expenses; and was sentenced to five years’ probation, a $5,000 fine and 300 hours of community service. His seat was filled last year by then-Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; and
  • Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who was twice exonerated last year by the House Ethics Committee after being accused of using her office for personal gain while serving as a state representative from Lexington County. In dismissing all seven charges against her after a hearing last June, the committee determined she did not use her legislative position to lobby for Lexington Medical Center, where she worked for $110,000 a year as a fundraiser for its foundation, or for  Columbia-based Wilbur Smith Associates, where she was paid $48,000 as a consultant. No criminal charges were brought against Haley.

Ethics Bill Battles

Several senators reportedly were planning to meet behind closed doors over the weekend in an attempt to revive the stalled ethics-reform bill (H. 3945) with just three meeting days left in this year’s regular legislative session.  The bill, which has been in the Senate for more than a month, created a storm of protest over the secretive way it was released by the House Judiciary Committee and when the initial draft revealed that criminal penalties for many ethics violations would be dropped, as The Nerve previously reported.

Government watchdog groups have been pushing lawmakers to end their authority to police themselves – an area of contention with H. 3945.

The House would create a “Joint Committee on Ethics” to investigate alleged ethical violations by lawmakers. The House plan would eliminate the House and Senate Ethics committees, though the proposed new committee would still be legislatively controlled, as the House and Senate would allow majority and minority leaders in both chambers to appoint eight lawmakers and eight citizens to the panel, as The Nerve reported in April.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s version would replace the current nine-member State Ethics Commission with an eight-member panel that would be a combination of appointees by the House speaker, Senate president pro tempore and the governor, though no panel members could be lawmakers,The Nerve reported last month. The current commission is appointed by the governor, with consent of the General Assembly.

The reconstituted Ethics Commission would have the authority to investigate state lawmakers, referring criminal matters to the Attorney General’s Office and non-criminal matters to the House and Senate Ethics committees. The governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform in a report released in January recommended that the State Ethics Commission have jurisdiction over lawmakers, with potential criminal cases referred to a proposed, multi-agency “Public Integrity Unit” within the Attorney General’s Office.

Both the House and Senate Judiciary versions of H. 3945 authorize the creation of the Public Integrity Unit.

Medlock, who co-chaired the Commission on Ethics Reform along with Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general, told The Nerve last week that anything that ended the practice of lawmakers investigating themselves would be “a step forward.”

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.