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.