Outgoing lawmakers under no obligation to close ‘their’ accounts
When you don’t run, can you still spend?
The short answer is, if you’re still in office, yes.
The long answer is, whether you’re in office or not, yes.
Thanks to open-ended campaign laws that have no statute of limitations on campaign funds so long as reporting deadlines are met, in South Carolina contributions to one’s campaign may continue to flow whether one is a candidate or not.
And, just as importantly, elected officials may continue to make use of those funds as they see fit within campaign ethics law, which already has loopholes wide enough to fly a Boeing Dreamliner through, for as long as they choose.
On Sept. 30, Rep. Chip Limehouse (R-Charleston) officially confirmed that he would not run for re-election to the District 110 seat he’s held since 1995.
That same day First Citizens Bank made a deposit into his campaign account, and while it was a pittance by any measure at $4.72, just eight days earlier his campaign received two significant out-of-state deposits, $500 each from WALPAC Committee for Responsible Government and JM Family Enterprises in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
On Sept. 16, two weeks before he told the Charleston Post & Courier it was “time to turn the page,” he was also spending on his campaign, mailing one of two checks totaling $405 to a College of Charleston student for “campaign work.”
Limehouse’s most recent campaign disclosure report filed in October shows four payments – three to individuals and a fourth to his own business, Limehouse Properties, for $34.98 in postage.
Of the three individuals, the first was to the CofC student mentioned above; the second received payments of $330 and $360 on July 23 and 24, respectively; and the third received a payment of $160 on Sept. 18, just 12 days before he announced his intention not to run.
The payments to all three were for “campaign work.”
The third individual graduated from the College of Charleston in 2015 but began working for Limehouse while she was a page in the summer of 2014. All told, Limehouse paid that page 22 times for a total of $5,030 as she finished school.
Limehouse told The Nerve that all three individuals worked for him “in various scheduling capacities related to my legislative duties.” He added, “It’s a full-time job to keep up with me.”
It’s precisely that phrase – legislative duties – that gives lawmakers and candidates carte blanche to draw upon their campaign funds well after they’ve quit, lost or moved on. Of course, personal use is forbidden, but as every good lawmaker knows, those funds can be used, and rather liberally, “to defray ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with his duties in his public office.”
In fact, getting accounts closed is something of a problem, according to House Ethics Committee attorney Jane Shuler. She says her office encourages candidates no longer running or in office to close accounts to avoid the fines associated with them, but admits it’s easier said than done, with several accounts dating back to 2012 still open, including Gov. Nikki Haley’s House campaign fund (a quick check by The Nerveshows active reporting of the account as of October 2015 with a balance of $2,174.).
Reasons to keep an account once an official chooses not to run or leave office can vary – from having future debt to service, to potentially running again for a seat in the same body (rather doubtful for Haley, but possible), to the aforementioned defrayal of expenses while in office (Limehouse), to no reason whatsoever.
One complicating factor to closing out accounts is that to do so, accounts must have a zero balance, meaning all the money was appropriately spent. There are mechanisms in place to empty an account no longer needed. Under state law section 8-13-1370, candidates may donate their campaign contributions to a 501c3, a political party or a committee; be returned pro rata to all donors (not a simple task for an account such as Limehouse’s, with $100,000-plus); or be contributed to the state’s general fund.
With such options as donating it all to charity, returning it check-by-check or donating it to the state’s general fund, it’s little wonder what direction most politicians go.
A year ago on Dec. 9 when questions from The Nerve immediately preceded Rep. Kris Crawford’s sudden resignation from the seat he’d just campaigned for and won only a month earlier, Crawford’s campaign chest had $13,309.55 remaining. On Jan. 7, 2015, he gave $9,809.55 to the House Republican Caucus Committee and $3,500 to the Florence County Republican Party.
As for Limehouse, he’s not feeling particularly charitable at the moment. After all, there are costs to defray.
“I think I’ll just keep mine open,” Limehouse said. “As long as you file (reports), you can do with it what you like within the law.
“It’s your money,” he said. “Well, your campaign’s money.”
Reach Aiken at 803-254-4411 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.