Capitol Gains: Vague terms cloak S.C. lawmakers' expenses

Campaign purchases described as 'unknown,' 'office,' 'incidentals'

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Lawmakers, who serve in the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, pictured here in June, continue to use vague terms to describe their campaign expenses in their disclosure reports even though bogus descriptions have led to several public corruption cases in the state.

Lauren Prescott/Post and Courier Staff

Nov. 12, 2015: This story has been corrected.

South Carolina ethics laws require candidates to describe how they spent their campaign money. Here are some examples:

  • In July 2012, Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, spent about $800 at Best Buy, pegging the purchases as “unknown.” In an interview, he said that he bought an iPad for everyday legislative purposes.
     
  • Over four years, Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca, spent $2,300 on an American Express card, listing the expenditures only as “office.” He didn’t respond to requests to view these receipts.

Time and again, state legislators and candidates cloaked their campaign expenses in vague terms that gave the public no real idea of what the money bought, an investigation by The Post and Courier and the Center for Public Integrity found.

Lawmakers often used one- or two-word explanations, such as “supplies,”  “transportation,” “campaign expense,” “expense reimbursement,”  “fee” and “incidentals.”

One result of this lack of transparency is that the public must go to the legislators and candidates directly if they want more details.

Then it’s up to these candidates to decide whether to release this information.

When presented with opportunities to do so, some declined. Since 2009, Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Columbia, gave at least $73,000 in campaign money to his wife, Ginger, records show. His campaign disclosure forms described at least $39,000 of those expenditures with terms such as “reimburse see receipts” and “see receipts” or simply the letters “FR.” Huggins said his wife handles some of his campaign work. “If I can’t trust my wife, who can I trust?”

When asked if he would produce those receipts, Huggins declined, saying, “I’m not going there. You’re not on the Ethics Committee.”

Huggins said he tries to be as specific as possible about the expenditures. And some of his disclosure forms bear this out. He listed $150 spent on “8 cases of beer” from Budweiser on June 22 this year and $150 on “california rolls, crab rangoons, dragon rolls, fortune cookies” from Miyo’s restaurant in Columbia on June 25, 2013.

He said that he thinks ethics laws could be clarified, and that making receipts available online might be one option. “Then it would be clear cut. Then you’ve got it,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to distrust me.”

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, combined multiple expenditures into single entries such as “legislative travel,” “meetings and share of meals” without stating what was purchased or where any of those expenditures took place. The vendor for about $30,000 of these expenses was his American Express card.

Unlike some candidates, who declined to show The Post and Courier their receipts, Merrill supplied copies immediately. And those receipts showed where he stayed and ate. Like other candidates, Merrill said limited space on online forms prevents lawmakers from giving detailed information about expenditures.

Candidates have 200 characters to describe expenditures, said Herbert Hayden, executive director of the State Ethics Commission. That’s 60 more characters than a tweet. And some candidates left no doubt about what their campaigns purchased — and had plenty of spaces to spare. Rep. James R. Smith, R-Warrenville, in 2012 bought a “new Toshiba L875D-S723” from Staples on Pine Log Road.

But a quick glance at candidates’ forms reveals that many often used just a word or two, or acronyms. State candidates, for instance, paid roughly $140,000 since 2009 to individuals, consultants and others for “GOTV” and similarly vague terms for “get out the vote.” Campaign disclosure reports list few other details about those expenditures.

Lawmakers don’t have to turn in their receipts and invoices; according to the state’s ethics law, they merely have to “maintain and preserve” them for four years.

That’s different than the requirements for state employees and most employees of businesses who must turn in receipts to accountants and auditors, said Christopher Birkel, an assistant professor of legal studies at the College of Charleston’s School of Business.

“As a state employee, we have to show them the hotel bill, the airline bill — we’re held to that standard, which is much like private businesses.”

Birkel said that in addition to his job at the college, he also does work for a private company and sends receipts via his mobile phone. Because of these technological advances, “it’s incredibly easy to document your spending,” he said.

How does the state make sure candidates properly and fully fill out their forms? It depends.

The South Carolina Ethics Commission is responsible for compiling reports from candidates for positions across the state, from mayors to the governor. The agency’s online reporting system requires these candidates to fill out various fields. If a field is left blank, it won’t allow the report to be filed.

But the agency has no auditors to do random checks to ensure that expenses are correctly and fully described, said Hayden, the commission’s executive director. The agency only investigates “when something is brought to our attention.”

Meantime, the commission doesn’t have jurisdiction over members of the House and Senate. And the level of scrutiny varies here: The Senate audits every campaign report, but the House has only begun to create a formal audit mechanism. In September, the House Ethics Committee approved a proposal to do random audits of 10 representatives a year.

Lawmakers have broad leeway to use their campaign funds but are not supposed to use them for personal expenses unrelated to the campaign or the office they hold.

Bogus descriptions have led to several public corruption cases. Four years ago, the state Ethics Commission discovered then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard had used campaign funds to buy an $800 dress for his wife, filing it under “supplies” in his disclosure forms. When investigators checked other receipts, they discovered that he’d bought an iPod Touch, a flat-screen TV and a Playstation 3. Ard, a Republican, eventually pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and received five years probation.

Ex-Sen. Robert Ford also hid expenditures with deceptive descriptions, such as “purchase” for adult novelty items from Badd Kitty. The Democrat described a gym membership as “campaign worker-gratuity.” Ford resigned his Senate seat in 2013 and earlier this year was sentenced to five years of probation in his public corruption case.

Since those prominent cases have come to light, lawmakers have done nothing to make it easier for the public to keep track of campaign expenditures. Efforts to pass stronger ethics laws last year failed, with senators throwing up the biggest legislative roadblocks.

“Until you get a rigorous way of monitoring these disclosure forms and identifying suspicious transactions, nothing will change,” said John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina.

Glenn Smith, Doug Pardue and David Slade of The Post and Courier and Rachel Baye and Ben Wieder of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this report.

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

Correction, Nov. 12, 2015, 3:28 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, bought a Toshiba computer. The candidate who described the purchase in great detail was former state Rep. James R. Smith, R-Warrenville. 

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