Campaign finance loophole comes back to bite South Carolina senator

Lee Bright fought legislative fix that might have calmed campaign finance free-for-all

By

 Updated:

South Carolina State Capitol

Wikimedia Commons/Brandon Davis

A South Carolina state senator who blocked an effort earlier this year to limit anonymous campaign spending by third-party groups is singing a slightly different tune now that a shadowy group is opposing one of his political allies.

Sen. Lee Bright, a Republican from Roebuck, appeared at a news conference in Sumter last week to support businessman Tony Barwick, who is facing a GOP runoff election for a Senate seat on June 26.

In recent weeks, a group calling itself SC Conservative Reform Council has popped up and spent several thousand dollars on direct mail and radio ads in support of Barwick’s opponent, Wade Kolb.

The reform council does not appear on the S.C. Ethics Commission website, where other political action committees do, nor is it registered with the S.C. Secretary of State, as are corporations and nonprofits.

Groups influencing elections in South Carolina, such as the SC Conservative Reform Council, do not have to disclose who is bankrolling them or how much money they are taking in or spending, as a result of 2010 federal court ruling in Florence, S.C. And Bright recently helped quash legislative efforts to reinstitute some sort of  disclosure rules and spending limits for such groups.  

The federal case revolved around a seemingly mundane slice of minutiae — how the word “committee” is defined under South Carolina law. But the effects of the ruling were far-reaching indeed, opening the floodgates for untraceable political spending in the Palmetto State by many independent groups seeking to influence elections.

Candidate Kolb says he does not know who is behind the SC Conservative Reform Council.    

Its only disclosure: a UPS box number in a city outside the district where the race is taking place.

“How do we know who this group is?” Barwick asked at the press conference with Bright. “It could be organized crime funneling cash into campaigns down here. We just don’t know. We have a right to know as voters, we need to have that spelled out.”

Barwick says if elected he’ll propose a law that would force such groups to file with the Secretary of State and with the S.C. Ethics Commission. Such groups would also have to list their members and boards of directors, and also post all spending online with the state’s ethics agency.

Bright said the same group had been active during his own ultimately successful June 12 GOP primary race.

“I was concerned that the group that was trying to defeat me … is now involved in this race,” Bright said. “Nobody can find out anything about this group.”

The SC Conservative Reform Council poured at least $29,000 in his race, Bright says, citing documents from media outlets that sold ads to the group.

But in April, it was Bright who blocked a legislative effort to close the specific loophole that allows such untraceable campaign spending in the state.

The proposal he blocked would have would have put regulatory teeth back into the law by defining a ‘committee’ as any group, organization, association or club that takes in or spends more than $500 during an election cycle with a major purpose of supporting or opposing a candidate. Bright said he thought the proposal would also have required that all contributors to such groups be disclosed. That contention was denied by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Wes Hayes, but it seemed to be powering Bright’s objections.

Bright defended his actions at the June 22 news conference, saying his problem was not with the formation of such groups, or their disclosure of overall spending, but with forcing such organizations to disclose their individual donors. That, he said, could lead to intimidation. 

“There’s retribution,” Bright said. “There’s a reckoning.”

He cited a hypothetical scenario of a small business owner donating a small amount of money to a group is challenging an incumbent lawmaker, and that lawmaker somehow retaliating against the business owner after finding out about the contribution.

Bright said he would be open to the idea of groups having to disclose the identity of those who give large donations, such as anything more than $1,000.

After being on the receiving end of the South Carolina’s anarchic state of campaign finance, and seeing it affect the race of a friend, Bright said he would be open to revisiting legislation to tighten up the law. He said he is willing to find common ground with those, like Barwick, who want all donations disclosed when it comes to third-party spending on elections in the state.