October 31, 2014

SC House campaign finance subcommittee votes to end leadership PACs

SC Statehouse (File)

SC Statehouse (File)

The South Carolina House Campaign Finance Subcommittee is trying for more transparency when it comes to the flow of money to candidates and groups which support them.

The study subcommittee’s chairman Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, said it’s not what the cause is or where an individual stands, but the public’s right to know where they get their financing. “What’s important is, if people are spending money in an organized fashion to advocate for an individual or an idea, that we have some idea where that money is coming from,” Finlay said at a subcommittee meeting Thursday.

Members of the subcommittee also looked at the issue of what are broadly defined as political action committees, or PACs. However they are viewed, Finlay said court rulings have declared they are protected by the First Amendment and controlling them would be difficult.

However, he said one step that can be taken is the elimination of “leadership PACs,” which are those committees that have ties to members of the House. These PACs cannot donate to their organizer’s campaign, but can make donations to other House or Senate members. For example, now-former House Speaker Bobby Harrell had ties to the Palmetto Leadership Council PAC during his time as Speaker (Harrell consistently maintained it was not technically a “leadership PAC” since it was run by his chief fundraiser).

State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia (Image: SCETV)

State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia (Image: SCETV)

“We can’t go after anything other than that which we can control in the boundaries of South Carolina.” Finlay said at Thursday’s meeting. The subcommittee voted to recommended a ban on leadership PACs. The recommendation will be taken up at the larger House Rules Committee meeting and must be approved by the House once it new session begins after Election Day.

The state Senate has had its own ban on leadership PACs for three years, but House leaders have been reluctant to give up their own. A handful of other prominent House members used to have their own PACS, but have dropped them since ethics reform began getting more Statehouse attention since 2012. An ethics reform proposal that cleared the House this spring would have eliminated leadership PACs and required independent campaign committees to disclose their organizers (the measure failed in the Senate).

In South Carolina, PACs have little regulation beyond the $3,500 limit they can donate to a particular candidate (the same limit in place for any other individual or business). The organizers of such groups are not required to disclose their donors or their organizers, and have no limits on what they can spend or receive.

A PAC is a type of organization that pools campaign contributions from members and donates those funds to campaign for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation. PACs can take the form of all most any type of organization at the federal or state level, but cannot technically have organizational ties to the candidates they support.

The legal term PAC has been created in pursuit of campaign finance reform in the United States. This term is quite specific to all activities of campaign finance in the United States. At the federal level, an organization becomes a PAC when it receives or spends more than $2,600 for the purpose of influencing a federal election, according to the Federal Election Campaign Act. At the state level, an organization becomes a PAC according to the state’s election laws.

Matt Long contributed to this report

Five Richland County Sheriff’s deputies arrested on tax charges

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott (FILE)

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott (FILE)

Five Richland County Sheriff’s deputies have been arrested and fired after they were charged with fraud and tax evasion.

Sheriff Leon Lott announced the arrests Thursday of 48-year-old Vivian Belton, 32-year-old Bobby Cohens, 43-year-old Valerie Gibson, 40-year-old Cedric Jacobs, and 29-year-old Eddie West.

The sheriff said all five used fake dependent names on their returns in order to receive larger refunds from the Internal Revenue Service and South Carolina Department of Revenue. Lott said the investigation started with a different probe into Maribel Crespo, a former civilian employee in the department. He said investigators found Crespo was filing tax returns for the deputies and creating false identities for them to claim as dependents so they could get more money refunded.

The group fraudulently collected roughly $100,000 from state and federal tax refunds.

Crespo had been fired after her arrest in 2010 on identity theft fraud and misconduct in office charges that occurred while she worked with the county. Lott said Crespo had “bragged about the scheme to undercover officers. “That was the first tip,” he said. “And from there we just kept on going.”

He added that Crespo even “skimmed” money from the officers participating in the scheme. She is facing 13 counts of tax fraud, and has been given a $100,000 bond.

Lott apologized for the actions of his deputies. “Today’s one of those days you just want to scream and feel like you’re beating your head up against the wall when something like this happens,” he told reporters in a press conference.

Belton and Gibson both worked in the warrant division, while Cohens worked on fugitive cases and West was a road deputy. Jacobs was a school resource officer at Richland Northeast High School.


Election for Harrell’s old House seat delayed, Democratic chair plans appeal

Bobby Harrell embraces his wife a few minutes after pleading guilty to six ethics counts last week

Bobby Harrell embraces his wife a few minutes after pleading guilty to six ethics counts last week

South Carolina elections officials have ordered a delay in voting for the state House seat formerly held by Bobby Harrell.

In a controversial decision, the State Election Commission voted unanimously Thursday to give Republicans enough time to pick a replacement candidate. The commission rejected an affidavit filed by Harrell seeking to withdraw from the ballot, saying a guilty plea deal with prosecutors had already disqualified him.

Harrell’s ineligibility had meant the reliably-Republican district in Charleston and Dorchester counties suddenly had only Democratic nominee Mary Tinkler and Green Party candidate Sue Edward on the ballot. While Harrell’s name would appear, votes for him could not be counted.

But the South Carolina Democratic Party and an attorney representing Tinkler at Thursday’s hearing maintained it was “unprecedented” to order a new election after absentee voting had already begun. State party chairman Jaime Harrison said the move by a Republican-appointed board (although one commissioner is required to be Democratic) at the advice of staffers from a Republican state attorney general “reeked of politics.”

“We will be taking this to the highest court here in South Carolina,” he told reporters immediately after the commission’s decision. “Because we need to stand up for the voters in this state and the voters in that district.”

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DUI charge dismissed against Chesterfield legislator

Vick can be seen briefly struggling with a BPS officer in dashcam video from his 2013 arrest (Courtesy: SCDPS)

Vick can be seen briefly struggling with a BPS officer in dashcam video from his 2013 arrest (Courtesy: SCDPS)

A 2013 DUI charge against State Representative Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, was dismissed Wednesday on a technicality.

Vick’s attorney Todd Rutherford successfully argued that the officers failed to use proper procedure in reading Vick his Miranda rights. Rutherford outlined Wednesday’s court proceedings in an interview with South Carolina Radio Network.

“I made a motion to dismiss the case based on the fact that the officer never read Mr. Vick’s Miranda warnings on video,” Rutherford said. “Despite Mr. Vick sitting in the police car for over 30 minutes, his Miranda warnings were never read on video.”

A judge had rejected an earlier request for dismissal from Rutherford, a legislator who is also the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, because a prosecutor provided an affidavit saying Vick’s rights were read off camera.

In May 2013, a Bureau of Protective Services officer said he stopped Vick after seeing the legislator drive his vehicle over a traffic cone while exiting the Statehouse parking garage. The same officer said he had earlier seen Vick stumbling while walking to his pickup. Vick said he was walking funny because he had a pebble in his shoe. He was arrested after refusing to take a field sobriety test, but admitted to having a glass of wine at a nearby restaurant on Main Street in Columbia.

Rutherford said some would point out that his client got off on a technicality, however, Rutherford added, the law is clear in the way it is written.

“I would suggest that the law is not a technicality; no different than DUIs are technicalities,” he said. “The law mandated that Miranda be read on video. It was not done,
the state knew that it was not done, and they held this case out for over a year-and-a-half knowing that and tried to proceed yesterday as if that didn’t matter.”

“But it did matter,” Rutherford added. “The judge read the law and he made the state abide by the law.”

Vick is in the last few months of his term after announcing earlier this year that he would not seek reelection. He still faces other drunken driving and weapons possession charges stemming from a separate 2012 arrest in Columbia.


Audit finds agencies aren’t making sure SC Education Lottery money is spent properly

LotteryA new audit has found that South Carolina education officials are not following up on lottery money to make sure that it is being used correctly for college scholarships or elementary and middle-school education.

The report released Wednesday by the Legislative Audit Council (LAC) examined how revenues from the South Carolina Education Lottery are handled once they are transferred into the state budget. Auditors found a lack of oversight by the two agencies which handle most of the funds, raising the risk that the money could be spent improperly.

The report noted few controls are currently in place to ensure that students receiving more than $222 million in lottery-funded scholarship funds are actually eligible to receive them. Students receiving the Palmetto Fellows, LIFE, HOPE, and other lottery tuition assistance must be U.S. citizens or lawful residents and residents of South Carolina at the time of their graduation from high school. Those students must also maintain a 3.0 GPA while in college to keep their merit-based scholarships.

But the Commission on Higher Education (CHE) has no way to measure if the amounts of scholarships requested by the state’s institutions are accurate, beyond matching the college’s ledger with its student rosters, according to LAC director Perry Simpson.

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