February 28, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

Top Ethics Fines of Current Officeholders


ethics commission

The biggest unpaid ‘tickets’

If you have the misfortune of receiving a traffic ticket, the course of action is straightforward: Pay it or be punished. When it comes to ethics fines on South Carolina elected officials, the rules aren’t so simple.

The State Ethics Commission is tasked with enforcing the ethics laws, and to that end the commission is empowered to conduct investigations into ethics violations, both potential and actual, as well as to pronounce judgements and levy penalties. Some of the commission’s findings can be found on the agency’s website, as well as information on the various debtors who have not paid their ethics fines.

The Nerve found that there are a number of elected officials who owe significant ethics fines to the state. According to the Ethics Commission website to collect these debts the commission has “sent letters, telephoned, and/or made personal contact with the debtors. In addition, those debtors who have reached bad debt status have been referred to the S.C. Department of Revenue for collection.”

The three currently serving elected officials with the highest outstanding ethics fines are Trustee Tony Lewis, Trustee Anthony Brown and Mayor Jerry Cook. All have had fines in excess of $25,000.

This month Lewis, who owes the most of any current elected official at $61,000, stepped down from his position as Chairman of Charleston Constituent District 20, because of alleged blackmail against the school district, but still remains on the board. His outstanding fine was not among the reasons he gave for stepping down.

Brown is a Trustee on the Constituent District 2 Board of Trustees for Charleston County School district. His fine is over $52,000.

Cook is the mayor of the town of Yemassee; his fine is $25,100. In 2014 he was asked about his fine – at that point he owed a mere $500 – and responded, “I ain’t paying a dime because I ain’t done nothing wrong,”

The abovementioned sheriff is Thomas Smalls. This chief law enforcement officer of Hampton County owes the commission $15,600.

Unfortunately, the charges that resulted in these ethics fines against these officials were not available by the time this story was posted, though a request to the State Ethics Commission for more information has been sent.

The ability for officials with many thousands of dollars in fines against them to continue serving illustrates the accountability gap that exists in South Carolina. There would appear to be one set of rules for elected officials, and another for those who pay their salaries.

Meanwhile, if you get a speeding ticket in Hampton County – or anywhere else in South Carolina – don’t make the mistake of assuming you can ignore it.

Duncan Taylor is a policy analyst at the South Carolina Policy Council

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