South Carolina

SC Senate Republicans could have to cough up records in lawsuit over campaign spending

First-term senator Dick Harpootlian brings passion to post

Dick Harpootlian
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Dick Harpootlian

The S.C. Senate Republican Caucus could soon be forced to turn over its fundraising and spending records in response to a lawsuit filed by a Democratic candidate the political group failed to defeat in last year’s election.

Attorneys for state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, want those records as ammunition for their effort to overhaul the state’s campaign finance rules, cracking down on political groups that take in donations from special interests and then spend big on State House campaigns.

But the caucus’ attorneys argued in court Tuesday that Harpootlian is on a “political witch hunt,” seeking documents that are not relevant to his case. Circuit Judge Casey Manning heard both sides Tuesday and is expected to make a decision later this month.

The fight stems from the Senate District 20 special election last fall.

In October, during the home stretch of his race with Republican Benjamin Dunn, Harpootlian successfully sued the caucus to temporarily block the GOP group from airing attack ads that labeled him as “too extreme” to hold public office and likened him to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist.

His lawsuit alleged the caucus’ $200,000 campaign to defeat him broke a state law that limits a political party’s donations to a single candidate to $5,000 per election cycle — a law that caucus attorneys have argued does not apply to their group.

A district judge sided with Harpootlian, taking the caucus’ ads off the airwaves. Harpootlian defeated Dunn in November, and now the two-time state Democratic Party chairman wants the judge’s ruling to become permanent, affecting races other than his own.

State House caucuses are funded heavily by big corporate interests that lobby the Legislature. And such a ruling would severely limit the influence those caucuses can wield to protect incumbent lawmakers in State House races.

But the caucus’ attorneys said Harpootlian’s efforts are moot since his race is over.

“You suspended the ads from being on the airwaves or the internet. The case is over,” caucus attorney Lisle Traywick told Manning. “That’s our argument.”

But Harpootlian’s attorney, Chris Kinney, said there is still an open legal question as to whether groups like the caucus can continue to pour tens of thousands of dollars into State House races.

“They raise huge sums of money in $10,000 or $25,000 increments, most of them from special interests,” Kinney told Manning. “This appears to be an end run around the law and around the contribution limits imposed by the law.”

Under state law, the caucus already must disclose its donors and expenses. But a judge’s ruling could provide Harpootlian’s team documents that reveal more details, such as how those donations were solicited and whether the donors specified how the money should be spent, Kinney said.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
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