New legislation could increase enforcement of state ethics fines

Published: May. 23, 2022 at 7:09 PM EDT|Updated: May. 23, 2022 at 7:33 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - This month, the state ethics commission updated its list of debtors which includes elected officials and candidates on the hook for late or missing filings, misuse of campaign funds and more.

It’s about 25 pages long, listing people who owe $100 to hundreds of thousands, totaling $2.6 million.

That’s about the same as when Live 5 Investigates reported on the debtors three years ago.

Ethics Commission Debtor’s list continues to grow

The latest to be added from the Lowcountry area are Angela McClary-Rush, a board member for Williamsburg Council Schools, Chris Lovelace, a former Colleton County Sheriff candidate and Timothy Reese, a council member on Sullivan’s Island.

Many remain on that list months and years after being added because getting them to pay up, doesn’t always pay off for the South Carolina Ethics Commission.

That’s because the state agency lacks the enforcement it needs, according to Sen. Greg Hembree (R-District 28).

“When you don’t have that ability to enforce the law. Then you really undermine the entire integrity of the system,” he said.

The Commission is charged with keeping politicians honest by enforcing state elections laws.

“We were way ahead of the country back in when we first passed them. We were like the lead, they had the best ethics laws in the country for a long time, but other states have caught us and now have passed us,” Hembree said. “For someone who just wants to thumb their nose at the law they can.”

Live 5 spoke with former Charleston County District 20 Constituent School Board chairman Tony Lewis in 2018 to ask about $61,210 owed to the ethics commission. Then he said he didn’t have a problem with being held accountable.

READ MORE: Live 5 Investigates: Hundreds of politicians not paying fines to SC Ethics Commission

He’s currently listed as owing $60,955, making about a $300 difference.

When Live 5 Investigates followed up, he did say he had been making some payments until the pandemic hit.

But had a different tone, calling the fines “hellacious price tag” in response to a question if he would resume payments.

Lewis no longer holds his position on the board.

Candidates in smaller races report less help and resources, but higher fines

Henry Copeland ran for Charleston County School board in 2012 and ended up owing the ethics commission $7,500 dollars. What began as an initial late fee of $100, ended up snowballing with daily late fees.

He’s now on a payment plan from the Department of Revenue.

“It was a shock in the sense that was far more than I ever spent on the election,” he said. “I think it was a very stiff fine considering the fact we were talking about a missing a filing deadline and we may be talking about reporting maybe $2,000 worth of campaign contributions, but the law is the law. But there ought to be some opportunity in which to rectify a situation that had apparently gone to the other extreme.”

Running a smaller campaign, Copeland recalls little to no support available to him from the state.

We were also able to get in contact with Chris Lovelace who according to the ethics commission owes $31,100 in fines for his 2016 run for Colleton County Sheriff.

Lovelace was just added to the list this past month.

The ethics commission reports he missed several filing deadlines and used campaign funds for personal reasons including gas station, restaurant, and clothing store charges.

Lovelace denies wrongdoing and argues health issues put him at a disadvantage.

“All the campaign funds are accounted for. It’s just that, they weren’t reported on time, at the time frame they wanted. And again, I take responsibility for that. It’s nobody else’s responsibility but mine. But I think the $30,000 is excessive,” he said. “As far as the Ethics Commission, dealing with them, it’s left a sour taste in my mouth.”

Lovelace says he ran because he saw corruption within the department and wanted to do something positive for his community.

He’s currently appealing his case.

Lewis also complained that he wasn’t aware of procedure, and it wasn’t fair to charge him for something he didn’t know about.

“The paperwork is so discouraging from that standpoint that I can easily see where an average person would hesitate to get involved. It places doubt on my desire to run for political office again, " Copeland said.

Banned from holding office

Legislation is in the works that would prevent Copeland and all the others named on the list from running from office again, at least as long as they owe money.

Sen. Hembree of the Peedee area introduced Senate Bill 991 that would prevent candidates with outstanding debts from doing so.

“There was one that we had in Horry County some years ago with a high profile elected official who happened to be a friend of mine, you know, but this person just for whatever reason we’re just steadfastly refused to pay those funds and they got into the tens of thousands of dollars,” Hembree said. “This person continued to serve continue to run for election and continue to get reelected so and still no payment of fine. So I was that was how I became aware of the problem.”

The bill did make it to a subcommittee but ultimately did not pass this legislative session.

Hembree says the bill wasn’t fully ready but he’s hopeful they’ll hit the ground running next year.

“I think that if you want a system, that’s truly accountable. They’re going to have to be more people at the Ethics Commission,” Copeland said. “But they’re going to have to have more of an eye on how to catch the items that can be corrected and how to catch the items that are an abuse of the system, and how to tell the difference between the two.”

The Ethics Commission receives funds from the legislature, but the $2.6 million owed is intended to help keep the department operating.

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