Palmetto Opinion

Why ‘none of your business’ is a legal answer on SC campaign spending

Then-SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleads guilty in October 2014 to six counts of use of campaign funds for personal expenses.
Then-SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleads guilty in October 2014 to six counts of use of campaign funds for personal expenses. gmelendez@thestate.com

WHEN THE questions were first raised about how then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, it felt like he simply hadn’t provided enough detail on his disclosure reports — reporting a total amount he reimbursed himself for “legislative travel” in a quarter instead of itemizing that travel, for instance.

After all, we don’t expect people to report illegal expenditures, even if they do so in overly broad terms.

It took SLED and the attorney general and a special prosecutor to uncover the truth — accompanied by grotesque attempts by Mr. Harrell’s colleagues to rewrite the law and even the state constitution to keep him out of trouble, orders in which a Circuit Court judge embarrassed himself and a Supreme Court hearing and order in which our justices damaged their public standing. But eventually, we learned that those overly broad terms were in fact hiding illegal expenditures — from flying his family to vacation in Florida to billing his campaign for flights that didn’t even occur.

I had a flashback to Mr. Harrell’s overly broad descriptions of his expenditures when I read The Post and Courier’s latest installment of its “Capitol Gains” series, which is based on a systematic examination of seven years worth of campaign and financial disclosure reports from legislative and statewide candidates. The newspaper, working in conjunction with the Center for Public Integrity, hasn’t uncovered anything that reporters for this paper haven’t seen when they review those same reports, on a quarterly and annual basis. In fact, the reporting is reminiscent of the things I saw when it was my job, two decades ago, to review those reports.

What’s different is the effect of reviewing more than 100,000 documents as part of a single project. Doing that produces impressive numbers, such as more than $100 million that candidates have spent from their campaign accounts since 2009. It also provides an impressive collection of outrageous examples that you wouldn’t find in a single quarter’s or even a single year’s reports. And that produces those flashbacks to Bobby Harrell. For example:

▪ The $800 that Sen. Kent Williams spent at Best Buy for what he identified on his disclosure report as an “unknown” expenditure.

▪ The $2,300 that Rep. Bill Sandifer used to pay his American Express bill for expenditures identified as “office.”

▪ The $30,000 that Rep. Jim Merrill spent on such items as “legislative travel” and “meetings and share of meals.”

When asked, Sen. Williams told the newspaper he bought an iPad for legislative work, Rep. Sandifer didn’t reply to inquiries, and Rep. Merrill provided copies of his receipts. So it looks like at least in the case of Sen. Williams and Rep. Merrill, there might not be any Harrell-style expenditures lurking behind the generalities.

And then there was Rep. Chip Huggins, who paid his wife at least $73,000 and identified $39,000 of those payments with such descriptions as “reimburse see receipts” and “see receipts.” When the paper asked to actually see those receipts, Mr. Huggins declined. “I’m not going there,” he said. “You’re not on the Ethics Committee.”

Let’s set aside the arrogance of that answer and just consider what it says about our ethics law. You see, Mr. Huggins appears to be on firm legal ground when he refuses to provide the public with any useful information about how he spends the money that is given to him by the special interests who want him to vote for their interests.

If you didn’t look too closely, you’d think that legislators and candidates have to provide those receipts for their campaign expenditures. A closer reading shows they merely have to keep them — sort of like they merely have to keep a list of the occupations of their campaign donors — and turn them over to investigators if asked.

They’re rarely asked.

Little wonder that the latest State Integrity Investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, released last month, hit South Carolina hard for its “enforcement gap.” That is, the gap between what state law seems to require, what the politicians claim it requires, and what actually happens.

The State Ethics Commission, which has jurisdiction over candidates for all state and local elective offices except the House and Senate, doesn’t have the staff to even eyeball the disclosure reports. The Senate Ethics Committee has been looking at them for years, and sometimes launching investigations based on those looks, and the House Ethics Committee has just started doing serious, in-depth, random audits of a handful of House members each year.

The House’s random auditing is a good start on closing the enforcement gap, because it involves comparing campaign reports with bank reports. But it’s based on a committee’s decision, not on a legal requirement. And it does not apply to senators, who probably could find a way to institute a similar program, or to all of those candidates under the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission, which probably could not.

We need a law to require all three enforcement entities to do both a look-over of all reports and this sort of random, in-depth auditing, and the resources to do the job. Actually, we need a lot more than that: We need independent investigations of legislators’ compliance with the law and tougher penalties for non-compliance and more laws to comply with — particularly reporting of income sources and more complete reporting of independent campaign spending. But a legal requirement for random auditing would be a good start.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached

at cscoppe@thestate.com

or at (803) 771-8571.

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