The South Carolina State Ethics Commission says political parties, elected officials, and candidates owe more than $6.5 million in fines that the agency is not able to collect.
However, before you get the pitchforks and torches ready for a march on the Statehouse, it’s important to understand how the process works. Most of the money is owed by retirees who are no longer holding office or were losing candidates in a past election. None of the names on the debtors’ list are major statewide figures. (To see a complete list, visit the Ethics Commission website.)
If a person commits a violation, they have to pay a fine. If they miss the deadline, that fine goes up every day. If they still don’t pay, the Commission will take it out of their tax return, paycheck, or as a penalty on their property value. However, that still leaves no way to collect on retirees who don’t plan to sell their home– and there are quite a few of those.
Commission deputy director Cathy Hazelwood said apathy seems to be the leading cause for the fines accumulating.
They lose, and then they lose interest… But it is quite a few folks who are not in office, although there are plenty of folks who were in office. But I think they just lose interest.
Former Eastover councilman Richard Johnson tops the list. The agency’s most recent report shows he owes more than $782,000 in fines. That all stems from 11 violations of $100 each. However, since there’s a $100 for every day the bill is late, Hazelwood said Johnson’s penalty is only getting larger.
When he wakes up every morning, he owes the state of South Carolina $1,100… Because it’s 11 different forms due every day at $100 a day.
Another possibly more disturbing loophole is a lack of recourse against political parties that don’t pay their campaign fines. Hazelwood explains that, since the parties don’t pay income taxes or receive wages, the only reliable method is to get the organizations to feel guilty about their debt.
There’s nothing that we can do with that… they’re not a property owner. They’re not on the election roll, an entity like that. So that just sits there to potentially shame them into doing what they need to do.
The worst offender is the Hampton County Democratic Party, which owes the commission more than $61,000 in fines. Close behind is the Chester County Democratic Party, which owes more than $50,000.
The fines began to skyrocket after legislators changed state law in 2003 to eliminate a $5,000 cap in fines. Hazelwood says the resulting figures have created a situation that makes it unrealistic to expect debtors to pay up.
It didn’t take us long after the law went into effect to know that a no-cap is not a good thing. The number gets so large that there’s no way we’re ever going to get that kind of money. We’re never going to collect $6.5 million.
A bill in the House would put the cap back into place. Legislators have yet to act on it, however.