An Upstate lawmaker has been fined over $16,000 and will need to repay nearly $7,400 more after investigators said he had thousands of dollars in improper spending and kept almost no records of his expenses for years.
The House Ethics Committee voted unanimously Thursday for the punishment against State Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg.
The committee’s order, made public shortly after the vote, details the findings of a two-year review of Mitchell’s campaign documents and bank records. The state Attorney General’s Office had turned over Mitchell’s financial records to the committee in April 2012 after Mitchell pleaded guilty in 2012 to not filing his taxes on time.
Mitchell is the current chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Committee members noted that Mitchell frequently withdrew cash from his bank account or wrote checks to himself, totaling more than $3,600 from 2008 to 2013. During a hearing in November, Mitchell said the cash was used for campaign expenses, but admitted he did not have any receipts or other documentation to prove it. The state Ethics Act only allows a candidate to withdraw $25 or less in cash from their campaign account for use in a “petty cash fund.” However, the committee report said Mitchell exceeded the limit 26 times. In many of those instances, Mitchell could not prove the money had been used for legitimate campaign expenses.
In fact, the order notes Mitchell reported no expenditures or contributions at all in his campaign account for a period of 51 months. Ethics Committee members said he instead “operated on a cash basis,” which violates state law.
The committee required Mitchell to pay $16,100 in total fines for violations and repay $7,388 that he either improperly spent or could not provide documentation to show the money was used legitimately. He is also barred from using a “petty cash fund” for four years.
The Spartanburg Democrat was not at Thursday morning’s Ethics Committee meeting. When reached on the House floor for comment, Mitchell deferred comment until he could read the order, “I mean, I’m glad that this is finally over, but just give me a chance to look at it.” However, he did not answer several follow-up calls to his cell phone later that day. The voicemail box was full.
Staffers had also questioned $12,015 that Mitchell transferred from his campaign to a nonprofit he runs — Regenesis Economic Development Corporation (REDO). Mitchell created the group in 1998 to redevelop several contaminated industrial sites in urban neighborhoods around Spartanburg. Ethics Committee members said they were concerned as state law prohibits candidates and elected officials from using campaign funds for personal gain.
The order cited an “ambiguity” in state law, which seemingly only allows candidates to donate to nonprofits at “final disbursement.” Traditionally, lawmakers have interpreted the language to mean a candidate can donate their remaining funds once they leave office. However, committee members admitted the law could also be interpreted as allowing an elected official to donate to charity at the end of a two-year term. They agreed to allow the previous transfers, but ordered Mitchell to stop the practice in the future.
Mitchell has previously blamed the lack of documentation as “sloppy bookkeeping” on his part, but denies using the money to personally benefit himself. The committee appeared to accept his explanation, with Chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, telling The State newspaper that Mitchell is “still highly respected in the community.”
Mitchell is running unopposed for reelection in November.