December 18, 2014

Former Charleston senator gets $50,000 bond on ethics-related charges

Former State Sen. Robert Ford minutes before his arraignment on Wednesday

Former State Sen. Robert Ford minutes before his arraignment on Wednesday

A former Charleston state senator has been granted bond as he challenges eight charges against him related to misuse of campaign funds.

Former State Sen. Robert Ford was given a $50,000 secured personal recognizance bond Wednesday on charges that include misconduct in office, forgery and ethics violations. The longtime Democrat was indicted last month on eight counts related to misusing campaign funds, then altering records. He is pleading not guilty to the charges.

Ford’s attorney Bill Runyon has consistently maintained that Ford was simply a bad bookkeeper who improperly used his personal bank account to handle his campaign expenses. After Wednesday’s hearing, Runyon said he believed his client is being targeted by state officials trying to appear tough on ethics reform.

“In the current climate up here, they’re looking to make an example of everybody when it comes to ethics,” he told reporters. “The legislature is bound and determined that they’re going to have some ethics legislation.”

Ford cited health issues when he resigned from office the day after a Senate Ethics Committee hearing into his finances in May 2013. During that hearing, a staffer laid out financial documents and bank records that he said showed Ford used campaign funds to buy sex toys, gym memberships, and a home improvement loan. Ford maintained at the time that the adult products were joke gifts to his staff, while his attorney admitted the loan was improperly used , he said it was to finance a reelection campaign, not for home repairs.

Last month, the former senator was indicted by a Richland County grand jury on charges of Misconduct in Office, two counts of Use of Campaign Funds for Personal Expenses, two counts of Depositing Campaign Contributions into Personal Bank Accounts, two counts of False Reporting, and Forgery. He could face a maximum of 19 years in prison and $20,000 fine, plus possible reimbursement of the missing funds.

Runyon said he is asking for six of the eight charges to be dropped because he does not believe Columbia is the proper venue to decide on transactions made at Ford’s bank account in Charleston.

“It’s a technical legal matter, but it does make a difference because it goes to the question of the power of a grand jury to hand down the indictment,” he told reporters. “It’s very important in the ordinary course of events that, if you’re going to be dragged into court and charged with something, that they have proper jurisdiction.”

The state Attorney General’s Office sought the indictments in Richland County because that’s where the SC State Ethics Commission, where Ford would have submitted his campaign financial paperwork each quarter, is located. The agency also relied on the Richland County grand jury to indict former state House Speaker Bobby Harrell in September, albeit under different circumstances.

Challenge dropped against Democrat who won Harrell seat

Democratic Party nominee Mary Tinkler(Image: Mary Tinkler for SC House)

Democratic Party nominee Mary Tinkler(Image: Mary Tinkler for SC House)

State officials have dropped their efforts to get a new election for the House seat formerly held by House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Harrell’s resignation from the House District 114 race only two weeks before the election left Charleston County Republicans without enough time to nominate a replacement. That ended up benefitting his Democratic challenger Mary Tinkler, who won the race in the heavily conservative district covering the Charleston suburbs.

Initially, the state Election Commission voted to delay the election to give Republicans enough time to find a new candidate. However, the state Supreme Court overrode them and allowed voters to cast their ballots on Election Day while the case was handled in the courts. The GOP eventually dropped out of the case, saying it was an issue to be handled by the Election Commission.

But the state Attorney General’s Office did not agree. A hearing on the dispute about the election had been scheduled next week, but the Charleston Post and Courier reports the AG’s Office filed a motion Tuesday to settle the dispute. A spokesman argued that there were no longer any parties challenging the election results, making the ongoing legal case moot.

Tinkler is a Charleston real estate agent. She will next have to run for re-election with all other House members in 2016.

Charleston County GOP chair John Steinberger told the newspaper he is optimistic his party can retake the heavily-conservative district in the next election cycle.

Lucas chosen as new SC House Speaker

House Speaker Jay Lucas, shortly after he was sworn in on Tuesday (Image: SCETV)

House Speaker Jay Lucas, shortly after he was sworn in on Tuesday (Image: SCETV)

As expected, the South Carolina House of Representatives on Tuesday unanimously chose State Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, to be their next Speaker of the House.

Lucas, currently the Speaker pro tempore, had been serving as Acting Speaker ever since his predecessor Bobby Harrell was indicted in September and eventually pleaded guilty to several counts of misusing campaign funds. The Hartsville attorney is in his 16th year in the House and has served as the chamber’s second-ranking position for the past four years.

On Tuesday, his fellow House members decided to make him their leader for at least two more years. “At first, it was a little overwhelming,” Lucas told reporters after the vote. “But I think we’re starting to fit in the role a little better. It’s going to be a learning curve.”

Lucas had been considered the frontrunner for the position ever since Harrell lost the seat. Two other Republican legislators rumored to be considering runs against him said in September that they would not seek the job. It marks the first time the House has promoted its pro tempore to Speaker since 1980, when Ramon Schwartz was elected by his peers.

The veteran Republican said he would strive to make the House more “inclusive” than it had been under his predecessor — meaning rank-and-file members would be more involved in committees and nominating candidates for state board openings. He also promised to disperse some of his powers among other members of the chamber to reduce the extraordinary influence Speaker Bobby Harrell held.

“Amassing so much power in the hands of a single member leads to stagnation,” Lucas said during a 15-minute acceptance speech. “Eventually, holding on to that power becomes more important than doing great things with the power of that position.”

He also pledged a renewed focus on ethics and infrastructure. Earlier this fall, Lucas appointed a pair of ad hoc committees to recommend a way for the House to move forward on both topics.

House members also on Tuesday voted unanimously to move State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, into Lucas’ old post of Speaker pro tempore. Pope is perhaps best known to South Carolinians as the solicitor who prosecuted Susan Smith after Smith eventually admitted drowning her two sons in a Union County lake, then telling police that a man had abducted them. He has served in the chamber for four years

Could doctors be required to check database before prescribing painkillers?

Image: CDC

Image: CDC

A special council tasked with finding ways to reduce prescription drug abuse in South Carolina recommended Monday that doctors be required to use a statewide database that monitors their patients’ prescription history.

The Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Council was created by Gov. Nikki Haley to address the misuse of opioid painkillers. According to the state Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS), 354 people died from “prescription poisoning in South Carolina from July 2013 to June 2014 (including 51 that were ruled suicides). That was more than died from heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines overdoses combined, according to a report released by the council on Monday.

The council unanimously supported requiring doctors, nurse practitioners, and other prescribers to participate in the state Prescription Monitoring Program overseen by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). The program updates each patient’s prescription history to show medical personnel when a person has received medication. Participation is currently voluntary, but DAODAS director Bob Toomey said only about 22 percent of prescribers are registered, and fewer actively participate.

“In a way, the voluntary nature has not worked,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “The demand (for prescription drugs) is high and it’s relatively easy to obtain. So we’re making it a little bit harder to obtain them.” He said some users or sellers will go from doctor to doctor seeking the same prescription so they can later sell the pills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 102 painkiller prescriptions per every 100 people in South Carolina.

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State senators propose splitting up DSS

State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, during a Senate hearing into DSS problems earlier this year (Image: SCETV)

State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, during a Senate hearing into DSS problems earlier this year (Image: SCETV)

Two of the three members of a state Senate panel investigating South Carolina’s child services agency believe the best option is to split up the agency.

State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said Monday she will pre-file legislation this week that would abolish the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) and create a new agency to handle child protective services, child abuse investigations, foster families and adoption. Other functions at DSS, including food stamps and other family welfare programs, would be placed under the existing Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

The proposal got bipartisan support after State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said he would co-sponsor it. Shealy and Lourie are two of the three senators on a subcommittee that has been investigating child deaths and other problems at DSS for the past year. The panel’s chairman Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, has not yet publicly commented on the idea.

Shealy said DSS leaders have devoted much of their attention to welfare programs, specifically “Welfare to Work” and other plans to reduce reliance on food stamps, at the expense of child protection. She believes instead placing those functions under DHHS (which oversees Medicaid benefits in South Carolina) would allow more focus on child services.

“It’s a huge agency and I think the agency was focused on too many things and not on child protective services,” she told South Carolina Radio Network. She proposed putting child services, daycare regulation, adoption, and other functions into a new Department of Family Protective Services.

Senators have spent this past year looking into the deaths of children who died from abuse or neglect during or after DSS case investigations. Their fact-finding hearings eventually led to then-DSS director Lillian Koller resigning in June. Gov. Nikki Haley has said her office is working to find a replacement, noting she had wanted to wait until after the November 5 elections to begin the search. Shealy said the governor has not yet indicated whether she supports the idea.

Shealy’s legislation would establish education and experience requirements for new child welfare caseworkers at the new agency (although the senator said current employees would not lose their jobs under her proposal). It would also set a maximum caseload for how many families a caseworker could investigate and a minimum response time for suspected abuse and neglect.

“I definitely think it’s going to make a big difference in what they do,” Shealy said. “If we do this, it’s going to narrow their focus. They’ll have more time to spend on what’s important.”

The bill would also replace the individual counties’ child abuse reporting systems with a statewide child abuse hotline. Shealy said this would allow the new DFPS to treat each case uniformly and would make it easier to report child abuse and neglect.

Lourie said he “wholeheartedly” supported Shealy’s proposal. “I look forward to working hard to ensure its passage, so every employee at this agency will be concerned everyday about one thing and one thing only – protecting children,” he said in a statement.