June 12, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

MY LAST NERVE: Campaign Cash for Criminal Defense? Please.

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You wouln’t have expected a meeting of the House Ethics and FOIA Ad Hoc Study Committee to be a good show. But it was.

Most of the meeting was taken up by Rep. Ralph Norman (R-York) contending for stronger language in a committee proposal. The majority of members didn’t care for the stronger language, and eventually things started to crackle.

A proposal out of Rep. Kirkman Finlay’s (R-Richland) Campaign Finance subcommittee was pitched to the committee as a ban on using campaign funds to pay fines, fees, or other charges as a result of a criminal matter. There was a catch, though – as there often is when lawmakers are proposing laws that eliminate their special privileges: the prohibition would only apply once an elected official is found guilty of the crime.

Rep. Norman asked the obvious question: When people write checks to a candidate’s campaign, would they be okay with that candidate using the money to defend himself against criminal charges? Hmm. Probably not?

To put this into a little perspective, the recent case of public corruption involving former speaker Bobby Harrell resulted in campaign expenditures in excess of $113,000 for the former lawmaker to defend himself against the charges, according to a recent story in The State. Those funds were used to trot the case in front of the Circuit Court twice and the state Supreme Court once – and that was before any formal charges were made. The bill that received heated discussion Monday would not change that practice – which didn’t sit well with at least three members of the committee.

When asked by Rep. Norman to explain the rationale for allowing public officials to use their campaign accounts to “defend themselves,” Rep. Finlay responded that the vast majority of members couldn’t afford thousands of dollars in legal fees. In fact, Rep. Finlay even defended the notion that any violations of the law they may be accused of would stem from their role as public servants. It would be unfair, according to Finlay, for members to have to defend themselves without using campaign funds.

Rep. Eddie Southard (R-Berkeley) – trying to determine a breaking point on the leniency of the use of campaign funds – asked if the proposal would allow officials to use campaign funds to defend themselves even after they are indicted by a grand jury, as Bobby Harrell did. The answer? Why of course, yes; because, as Rep. Derham Cole (R-Spartanburg) put it, “an indictment is not equal to a conviction.” So, just as former representative Harrell continued to tap his campaign account to defend himself after his indictment – the nature of which was so severe state law required that he be suspended from office and his leadership post – others will be allowed to do the same.

Of course, a ban on using campaign funds to pay legal fees would have the effect of encouraging ethical conduct, whereas allowing the practice would encourage the opposite. As long as members can defend themselves with campaign cash, why not bend the law as far as it will bend?

There’s another point to be made here, too. Maybe Rep. Finlay and other members of the committee know something the rest of the public does not. Maybe there are dozens, hundreds even, of frivolous complaints brought against House members at any given time. If so, it’s already a crime. According to state law, the “wilful filing of a groundless complaint is a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, a person must be fined not more than one thousand dollars or imprisoned not more than one year.” Somehow I doubt frivolous complaints are a real problem. I doubt they happen at all. In any case, though, thanks to the secretive and self-serving nature of the House Ethics Committee’s process for filing ethics complaints, we’ll never know.

Maybe members of the House would like to lift the veil of secrecy shrouding this process and show the public that frivolous complaints are in fact a problem. Until they’re willing to do that, they should keep quiet about it.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.

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