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Collecting fines for ethics offenses

January 13, 2014 

Campaign finance ILLUS.jpg

CHRIS WARE — MCT

  • In summary

    Ethics Commission needs to set reasonable punishments for candidates who file paperwork late and then enforce them.

It would be easy to get the impression from the S.C. Ethics Commission’s backlog of uncollected fines that the Palmetto State is the most corrupt in the nation. But the figures are misleading.

The Ethics Commission collected nearly $230,000 in fines last fiscal year, but that’s just a fraction of the nearly $2.5 million that candidates, lobbyists and committees across the state still owe. That would seem to suggest that scores of South Carolinians involved in elections committed serious misdeeds for which they were fined thousands of dollars that they haven’t paid.

It’s true that many offenders have not paid their fines, some for late filings that occurred more than a decade ago. But a significant number of the unpaid fines started out as small ones for simple mistakes in filing paperwork.

The huge backlog has resulted from something similar to what happens when someone is unable to pay back a high-interest, short-term loan on time. Even when the principle is small, the interest can mount up in a hurry, ultimately making the loan almost impossible to pay back.

Under South Carolina law, people can be fined $100 for filing either campaign disclosure or economic interest forms five days late. And once a notice goes out, fines amass daily, up to $5,000 per form.

Making matters worse, until several years ago, there was no cap on the fine and the daily penalty never stopped climbing. That has left some owing six-figure amounts on routine fines assessed before the $5,000 cap was set.

The astronomical fines would economically cripple many of the offenders, especially those who raised only a small amount of money in low-level campaigns. Former Horry County Council Chairwoman Elizabeth Gilland, for example, ended up owing $45,000 from her 2006 campaign for a minor case of late paperwork.

She thought she had the documentation to prove she had submitted the paperwork on time, but couldn’t find it. Now, at age 63, the fine would bankrupt her.

The Ethics Commission can’t simply offer amnesty to all offenders and write off the fines altogether. But it needs to review each case individually and determine a reasonable amount that can be paid by each offender – minus much of the compounded penalties.

Then, the state needs to create a system that will keep officials honest but one which it is prepared to enforce on a timely basis.

At present this small agency has jurisdiction over hundreds of thousands of yearly filings for all offices except legislators. While some fine collections are made through garnished wages, tax refunds and liens, most people who are going to pay do so voluntarily, said Herb Hayden, the agency’s director.

Perhaps with better communication, most offenders would be willing to pay while the fines are small. For others, the state will need to beef up collection efforts.

But the daily increase in fines isn’t working. If anything, it merely encourages offenders to snub their noses at the agency.

South Carolina needs to enforce its election finance laws. But it needs to set reasonable fines, ones that it can actually collect, and then follow through on making sure they are paid early.

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