S.C. lawmakers spending campaign funds on favorite charities, other ‘gifts’
By Rick Brundrett
During this year’s legislative session, S.C. Sen. Hugh Leatherman spent a total of $14,769 for constituent “gifts” through ChemArt, a Rhode Island-based ornament company, plus another collective $1,364 for constituent meals at the upscale Palmetto Club near the State House – all paid for with campaign funds, records show.
The Florence County Republican – arguably the state’s most powerful lawmaker who has been in the Senate since 1981 – also used campaign funds this year for a $2,000 “sponsorship” with The School Foundation in Florence, according to a quarterly campaign report filed in April.
The foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports Florence School District 1 and whose board members include Leatherman’s wife, according to the organization’s website.
In addition, Leatherman, the longtime Senate Finance Committee chairman, spent $1,000 in campaign funds for a “sponsorship” with Katrina’s Kids, a nonprofit organization started by fellow Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, and chairwoman of the Senate Family and Veterans’ Services Committee, Ethics Commission records show.
And he paid another $500 in campaign funds to cover membership dues to Florence County Progress, which, according to its website, is the private-sector arm of the Florence County Economic Development Partnership.
Leatherman wasn’t the only Republican or Democratic legislative leader in the Senate or House to spend campaign funds this year for similar types of expenses, The Nerve found in a review of lawmakers’ quarterly campaign reports filed with the State Ethics Commission.
State ethics law bans using campaign funds for personal expenses, though it allows those funds to cover expenditures related to elected officials’ campaigns or their “office,” which isn’t defined.
The Nerve has reported about state lawmakers who spent campaign funds this year on expenses related to trips to Egypt and other countries.
The Senate and House chambers historically have policed their own ethical conduct through their respective ethics committees. Leatherman’s campaign-fund spending this year on nonprofit organizations, for example, is allowed under a 1997 written Senate Ethics Committee opinion issued when he was chairman of that committee.
“Participating in fundraising activities for organizations, churches, schools, colleges, universities, communities, families in dire situations, political parties, protecting historical landmarks such as buildings and their surrounding property, as well as adding to them, and a whole range of charitable giving and charitable good works is a longstanding function of elected officials, especially Members of The Senate of South Carolina,” according to the June 3, 1997, opinion.
“The Public of this state expect, and in many cases demands, that Members participate in various functions that benefit the aforementioned groups,” the committee wrote.
More generally, in an April 29, 1993, opinion issued when Leatherman was the Senate Ethics Committee chairman, the committee acknowledged that the ethics law dealing with using campaign funds for office-related expenses is “intentionally broad and that the determination whether a particular expense is permissible is by design left largely to the discretion of the member.”
In a Nerve story, longtime state government watchdog John Crangle said the law should be changed to ban spending campaign funds on anything except campaigns.
The Nerve has previously reported about Leatherman’s campaign-fund spending. He did not respond to a written request seeking comment for this story.
State Ethics Commission records show that other legislative leaders have spent campaign money so far this year on memberships or “sponsorships” with various public or private organizations, including, for example:
— Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, who spent $302 on membership dues to the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce;
— Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who spent $1,000 on membership dues to the Myrtle Beach High School All-Sports Booster Club, which on its website lists him as a “gold” sponsor;
— Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, chairwoman of the House Education and Public Works Committee, who spent a total of $1,500 for two sponsorships with the Middle Tyger Community Center, which on its website lists her as a board of trustees member as of 2018;
— Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, chairman of the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee, who spent $500 for a sponsorship with the Joseph H. Neal Health Collaborative, named after the late state House member; and
— Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, and the House minority leader, who spent a total of $4,240 on 22 sponsorships, including $300 to the Columbia branch of the NAACP, $250 to the Alzheimer’s Association, and $100 to the Columbia Youth Baseball League.
Citing the 1997 written opinion of the Senate Ethics Committee, chaired then by Leatherman, the House Ethics Committee in a Sept. 1, 2016, advisory opinion wrote that House members can contribute to charitable organizations with campaign funds so long as the lawmaker or an immediate family doesn’t “derive a personal and financial benefit.”
House members also can use campaign funds for membership dues to non-political organizations, the House committee wrote, noting it “adopts the reasoning provided” in the 1993 Senate Ethics Committee opinion.
“The Committee cautions that the Member must join the organization in his or her official capacity as a legislator,” according to the House opinion.
Given that latitude, it’s likely that lawmakers in both the House and Senate will continue their longstanding campaign-fund spending practices.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.