Capitol Gains: S.C. politicians use office to pad pockets

Candidates enrich themselves with campaign cash, gifts, travel



South Carolina Sen. Hugh Leatherman spent more than $109,000 between August 2009 and August 2015 on presents, describing them with labels such as “constituent gifts,” “Christmas ornaments” and “constituent flowers.” Here, the Republican lawmaker addresses senators after he was sworn in as president pro tempore in the South Carolina Senate in January.

Grace Beahm/Post and Courier

Key findings:

  • State elected officials and candidates have what amounts to a personal ATM that dispensed nearly $100 million since 2009, including for such things as hiring their own companies, paying parking tickets and taking overseas trips.
  • The analysis of more than 100,000 expenses, gifts, travel and reimbursements found questionable spending under the state’s ethics laws to be pervasive and unrelated to party affiliation or geography.
  • Lawmakers and candidates cloak expenditures with vague terms such as “travel,” “unknown” and “incidentals” in a self-policing system that allows nearly unlimited spending.
  • When 26 candidates were caught violating ethics laws, they dipped into their campaign accounts to pay more than $133,000 in fines over the past seven years.

South Carolina elected officials and candidates have what amounts to a personal ATM that dispensed nearly $100 million since 2009 for such things as car repairs, football tickets, male-enhancement pills, GoPro cameras, overseas junkets and gasoline.

A joint investigation by The Center for Public Integrity and The Post and Courier also found state lawmakers and candidates used this cash machine to hire their own companies, pay parking tickets, purchase an AARP membership — and even buy a used BMW convertible for “parades.”

The money funding this political cash machine comes from candidates’ campaign accounts, reimbursements from state government and outright gifts from special interests.

The inner workings of this cash network typically remain hidden unless prosecutors subpoena questionable receipts and other evidence locked away from public view, as happened in the case of ex-House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

The Republican’s conviction last year for misusing campaign money to pay for his private plane left many in the state capital wondering whether other lawmakers would be charged. At least one active criminal investigation is underway, and a handful of lawmakers have been mentioned in a State Law Enforcement Division report.

Amid this backdrop, The Post and Courier/Center for Public Integrity’s investigation found questionable spending under the state’s ethics laws to be pervasive and unrelated to party affiliation or geography. The investigation raises fresh questions about the shadowy ways candidates and elected officials spend money. Consider:

  • Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Cayce, poured more than $105,000 into his own company and his father’s since 2009, accounting for nearly 80 percent of the campaign funds he spent.
  • Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg spent $4,500 in campaign cash to buy drawings and prints by her husband, an artist.
  • Former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill of Daniel Island earned more than $215,000 from fellow lawmakers who in many cases simply described the Republican’s public relations work as “campaign expense,” “consulting” or “mail.”
  • When candidates ran afoul of ethics laws, at least 26 used campaign money to pay their fines.

Longtime critics of the state’s ethics rules say the system is flawed and designed to protect cozy relationships and influence-peddling. Lawmakers created a state Ethics Commission to enforce laws – for everyone but themselves. House and Senate lawmakers each have their own separate ethics committees to take complaints and police themselves. “We have zero jurisdiction over members of the General Assembly,” said Herb Hayden, executive director of the Ethics Commission.

To better understand spending patterns, the Center for Public Integrity and The Post and Courier analyzed public records of more than 100,000 expenses, gifts, travel and reimbursements (search the candidates' expenditures here).

Taken together, this information provides the most comprehensive look yet at how state elected officials and candidates spent and received millions of dollars over the past seven years. It exposes how lawmakers and candidates cloak expenditures with vague terms such as “travel,” “unknown” and “incidentals.” It shows how they follow a murky ethics rulebook that allows nearly unlimited spending.

To be sure, many lawmakers fulfill their public duties with honesty and without milking their campaign accounts and other sources. The Post and Courier/Center for Public Integrity investigation found that many expenditures, reimbursements and gifts were perfectly appropriate transactions related to campaigning, policy exploration and simple expenses related to being in the public eye. Others were legal but of questionable judgment. And some appeared to cross clear ethical lines.

Murky ethics laws

At first glance, South Carolina’s ethics laws seem straightforward:

“No candidate, committee, public official, or political party may use campaign funds to defray personal expenses which are unrelated to the campaign or the office if the candidate is an officeholder nor may these funds be converted to personal use.”

The laws also prohibit public officials from using their positions to “obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”

In practice, candidates in South Carolina and elsewhere often stretch the boundary between what’s personal and what’s for their campaigns. Federal ethics laws, similar to those in South Carolina, allow candidates to use funds for both campaign- and office-related expenses. As in South Carolina, funds in some cases may even be used for gifts, provided that only a small amount is spent and that they are not for family members, said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel with Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit opposed to the influence of big money on local and national politics.

But many states have struggled to close loopholes in their ethics laws. About half the states surveyed in 2012 for potential corruption risks earned D’s and F’s in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation. South Carolina ranked 45th out of 50, largely because of its weak regulations.

Even when legal, some expenses still might not be appropriate, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in campaign finance.

“The line should be drawn a bit more stringently to really say these are funds that were given to allow you, legislator, to get your message out to obtain voters, and these aren’t funds that were given out so that you could obtain personal perks,” said Levinson, also president of Los Angeles’ Ethics Commission. “A lot of what we’re seeing here looks more like personal perks than bona fide governmental or legislative purposes.”

Consider transactions by Rep. Alan Clemmons, a Republican real estate lawyer from Myrtle Beach.

An Eagle Scout and avid hunter, Clemmons made national headlines earlier this year for sponsoring a bill to add three weeks of gun rights classes in public schools. Using a mix of campaign money and gifts, he flew to Israel in 2014 to foster ties between that country and South Carolina. He also flew to New Orleans that year to visit Port Fourchon, an offshore drilling supply port, and to the luxury Streamsong golf resort in Central Florida to discuss “legislative matters” with U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Republican from Florida.

Before a trip out West in 2014, Clemmons used campaign money to buy two GoPro video cameras and a GoPro bike mount from Best Buy.

That same day, his campaign spent $107 at a Bass Pro Shops store in Myrtle Beach. In a campaign disclosure form, he described the Bass Pro Shops purchase as “campaign camping equipment.” When asked about this expenditure, Clemmons said the item was a backup battery and that the entry on his campaign form was an embarrassing mistake and should have simply said “campaign equipment.”

He used his campaign accounts to buy two hunting licenses from Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources in the first half of 2014. Clemmons explained that he mistakenly used his campaign’s debit card and reimbursed his campaign three weeks later, after discovering the error.

Later, he used his campaign account to reimburse himself $1,753 for another trip in 2014 to New Mexico to meet U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce. Clemmons said that he and the Republican congressman from New Mexico discussed management of public lands and other unspecified legislative matters .

He and Pearce also went hunting, and a YouTube video of their trip shows them in camouflage blasting three turkeys. In response to the Post and Courier/Center for Public Integrity’s questions about those expenses, Clemmons said he had decided to reimburse his campaign $792.12.

“My additional time in New Mexico resulted in significant personal benefit and [the expenditures] are, therefore, more appropriately a personal expense,” he said in a written response.

Since 2009, Clemmons also forked over more than $25,000 for neckties and scarves from a company in Taiwan. The ties and scarves have the S.C. House Seal on the front. He said he distributed them to members of the House, a practice that he said helped cement relationships among its members and further his legislative goals. Receipts provided by Clemmons show orders for more than 1,500 ties and scarves.

Clemmons is far from alone. Other lawmakers spent campaign cash and received gifts in ways large and small. Other examples:

  • As with Clemmons, Rep. Michael Pitts, a Republican from Laurens on the House Ethics Committee, also enjoyed trips out West, spending nearly $6,000 jetting to Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota and Montana to hobnob with “sportsmen legislators.” Pitts said the summits were “mostly business” concerning hunting and fishing laws and initiatives. But photos from these events show Pitts and others proudly posing with freshly killed pheasants and other game.

    “You do get an opportunity to do something while you’re there,” Pitts  said of the hunting junkets. “The goal there is for the state hosting it to show off their natural resources. But that’s absolutely not the focus of (the trips).”
  • Rep. Bill Sandifer III, R-Seneca, dipped into his campaign war chest to pay about $6,000 for charter plane “air taxis.”
  • State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, a Republican, paid three parking tickets, saving him $35. Loftis did not return calls seeking comment.

The state’s loose ethics laws are “a tangled mess” that make almost any expense allowable, said John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina.

At one time, lobbyists provided lawmakers with cash and other freebies, but that practice ended in 1991 after the federal Operation Lost Trust corruption sting. Lost Trust led to 27 convictions and guilty pleas and fueled new ethics laws that put heavy restrictions on lobbyists.

“Now,” Crangle said, instead of lobbyist money, “you see people using campaign funds to get these freebies.”

Out one pocket, into another

Another practice that’s ripe for abuse: Lawmakers spend thousands of dollars in campaign cash to hire each other’s companies.

One beneficiary of this practice is Jim Merrill, the representative of Daniel Island, and his public relations company, Geechee Communications.

Since 2008, state lawmakers from both parties spent more than $215,000 to hire Merrill or his company. Lawmakers often describe the spending merely as “campaign expense,” “consulting” and “mail.”

In an interview, Merrill said that most people tend to take their business to people they know. If he had a toothache and he knew a dentist, he’d go to that person, he said. Same with lawmakers. “My job just happens to be direct mail.”

Other lawmakers used campaign cash to hire their own companies or those run by family members. One standout is Rick Quinn, the representative from Cayce. Since 2009, Quinn poured more than $41,000 from his campaign into Mail Marketing Strategies, which he owns. “I find myself to be the cheapest mail marketing company I can find,” he said, adding that he charges himself only “actual costs.”

In an interview, he initially said he would be “happy” to produce receipts and invoices for his company’s work. In his campaign disclosures, Quinn described his company’s work in vague terms such as “Mailing-Postage” and “District Newsletter & Postage.” Later, Quinn declined to produce his company’s invoices and receipts, writing in an email: “I have included great detail on my publicly reported ethics disclosures describing those reimbursements.” The entries on his forms, however, don’t describe specifics and costs of work done.

Quinn paid even more money — $63,000 — to Richard Quinn & Associates, a political consulting company run by his father. “If there was someone cheaper, I would use them,” Quinn said.

Quinn’s father is one of the South’s most influential GOP strategists, known for his work for such candidates as John McCain, Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond. In an interview, Richard Quinn said, “I can assure you that he never got RQ&A to do work that was never done. And it was usually done at cost.” He added that he had no ethical concerns about his son hiring his company: “Why not use a family member you trust?”

A similar refrain can be heard from Rep. David Hiott, who owns a printing company in Pickens.  Since 2009, the Republican paid his company $8,000 for campaign materials. During this time, 14 other legislative candidates spent at least $65,000 with Hiott’s company.

“I’m the only printer in town,” Hiott said, adding that he had no ethical problems with charging himself for work. Asked whether he would produce receipts for the work he did for his own campaign, he said: “I’m not going to open my books to individuals.”

In Orangeburg, Gilda Cobb-Hunter saw no problem with using $4,500 in campaign money to buy artwork by her husband, Terry Hunter. The Democratic representative used the drawings and prints to decorate her office. “I didn’t give it a second thought because I thought it was appropriate for my office and I thought it was an allowable expenditure.”

Some lawmakers also donated campaign cash to nonprofits that they run or where their family members work. For instance, W. Brian White, a Republican representative from Anderson and chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, gave more than $9,000 in campaign cash to the nonprofit Tri-County Technical College Foundation. White’s wife, Courtney, works there as a fundraiser. His campaign also pumped nearly $10,000 into Anderson Interfaith Ministries, where White’s wife is vice chair of the board of directors. White and his wife did not return numerous phone calls and emails.

Gassing Up

Running for office has its perks, and for many lawmakers, they include free fill-ups at the pump.

State Sen. Kent Williams of Marion often gassed up his SUV two or three times a week since 2009, spending more than $28,000 at gas stations. Asked whether he used the gas for personal trips or the campaign, the Democrat said: “Every day is an election day. People come up to me when I worship in church, when I’m eating breakfast, when I go out to lunch.”

Orangeburg Sen. John Matthews Jr., a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, was another prolific fuel purchaser, spending more than $13,400 since 2009. Through 2012, the Democrat described these transactions as “gas” purchases on his campaign disclosure forms but in 2013 began describing them instead as “incidentals.” Asked why, Matthews said: “It just fits better in my reports.” He added that the change was not related to the ethics case against former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, a Republican who in 2012 pleaded guilty to violating state ethics laws, including a charge that he purchased gasoline for personal use.

Former Sen. John Yancey McGill, D-Kingstree, also was a frequent filler, shelling out at least $17,000 from his campaign account on gas, much of it from a station within sight of his real estate office. Aside from his campaign coffers, he also tapped taxpayers for driving expenses. During the past four years, he received more than $11,700 in mileage reimbursements. His campaign also covered $888 in “travel expense/car repairs” from a tire and service center in Kingstree. McGill did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Altogether, lawmakers spent more than $139,000 buying gas since 2009, which is surprising given the Ethics Commission’s longstanding position that campaign funds cannot be used to buy fuel. The correct way to document driving expenses? “Mileage reimbursement” in the form of a log “is the only acceptable method,” the Ethics Commission reiterated in a case settling the public corruption case against Ard.

Gifts that keep giving

The political ATM is used in other ways. One common practice is to shower constituents and charities with money and gifts. Notable examples:

  • State Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman spent more than $109,000 between August 2009 and August 2015 on presents, describing them with labels such as “constituent gifts,” “Christmas ornaments” and “constituent flowers.” Leatherman is on the Senate Ethics Committee. “He has given Christmas ornaments to constituents for years, and frankly, they look forward to receiving them,” said Robby Dawkins, the Florence Republican’s chief of staff.
  • Cobb-Hunter reported giving constituents more than $3,600 in jewelry bought from an Orangeburg shop. She said she presented pins, earrings and necklaces to campaign workers and other supporters to show her thanks at Christmas, graduations and other special times.
  • Kent Williams, the senator from Marion, spent more than $7,000 on football tickets to Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, South Carolina State and Benedict College games. He said he distributes the tickets to youths and campaign volunteers.

While they showered others with gifts, elected officials also received their fair share:

  • Between 2011 and 2014, Clemson board members, alumni and others gave Gov. Nikki Haley more than $116,000 worth of football tickets, which appears to be allowed under state rules.
  • The Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce gave more than $16,000 in gifts to 39 lawmakers and other state candidates. Those included corkscrews, tumblers, wine holders and thousands of dollars in food and lodging.
  • State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat from Camden, and at least five other lawmakers flew to Turkey — $7,000 trips provided by South Carolina Dialogue Foundation, since renamed the Atlantic Institute-South Carolina, and unspecified Turkish sponsors. The group’s purpose is to increase dialogue and ties between the United States and Turkey. Its origins are in the Movement, which characterizes itself as a transnational network of moderate, pacifist Islamic organizations. Sheheen, who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor, said in an interview that trips such as these help broaden the horizons of state leaders. He did not respond to follow-up questions about the trips’ sponsors.
  • The Heritage Classic Foundation gave at least $47,000 worth of gifts — mostly tickets to the golf tournament it sponsors. The state began subsidizing the golf tournament after Verizon dropped its sponsorship in 2011.

When 26 candidates were caught violating ethics laws, they dipped into their campaign accounts to pay fines – more than $133,000 over the past seven years.

Lawrence M. Noble, another senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said that using campaign donations to pay ethics fines seems wrong on its face. Yet, he noted that South Carolina’s weak ethics laws and tepid enforcement are relatively common among the states.

Cracking down?

Just a handful of lawmakers have been convicted of charges that they violated the state’s anemic ethics laws.

Former Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, became the poster child of campaign abuse after prosecutors in 2014 revealed that he spent campaign money on a gym membership to Planet Fitness, which he reported as a “campaign worker-gratuity,” and bought adult novelty items from Badd Kitty, referring to them in disclosure forms simply as “purchase.”

Investigators also alleged that Ford used campaign funds to buy male-enhancement pills, a Kangen water ionizer, and pay his renter’s insurance. Ford eventually resigned and pleaded guilty to public corruption charges stemming from what prosecutors said was the misuse of more than $69,000 worth of campaign funds. He was sentenced to five years of probation.

But the most prominent ethics law case brought down Harrell, at one time one of the most powerful leaders in state government.

After stories by The Post and Courier and a complaint by the government watchdog S.C. Policy Council, prosecutors eventually accused Harrell of paying himself $294,000 from his campaign account, including $94,000 toward expenses of his private plane, which he used, among other things, to fly with family and friends to a high school baseball tournament, costs he reported as “legislative travel.” Harrell was sentenced to three years of probation but maintained to the end the expenditures were merely a reflection of differing interpretations of the state’s ethics laws.

Harrell’s prosecution triggered ongoing spin-off investigations into other lawmakers, a situation that has elevated anxiety levels throughout the state’s political ranks. “The level of ‘gotcha paranoia’ in Columbia is at an all-time high right now,” said Harrell’s son, Trey Harrell, a Charleston attorney and longtime friend of Sandifer, the Republican representative from Seneca.

Sandifer declined to comment for this story, but Harrell said that Sandifer and many other lawmakers are taking a second look at their finances or having lawyers or others review their ethics filings. Some lawmakers argue that the state’s ethics rules and legal opinions are so complex and unclear that they mess up even when they’re trying to do the right thing.

Then again, it’s helpful to remember that they make those rules.

This story was co-published with The Post and Courier.

Find our content interesting and worth supporting?

Donate to The Center for Public Integrity.

Donate now
Donate now