A former Charleston state senator avoided prison time Thursday, but will have to serve 350 hours of community service and repay nearly $70,000 after pleading guilty to four ethics-related charges.
A circuit judge sentenced State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, to a total of 12 years in prison for the charges, but suspended the sentence in favor of five years probation, $69,000 restitution, and community service.
Ford had agreed to plead guilty back in January to two counts of False Reporting, one for Misconduct, and another for Forgery. He was given seven years suspended on the misconduct charge, three for forgery, and one year each on the false reporting charges. He was given five years probation for each conviction, to be served concurrently.
Circuit Judge Robert Hood mentioned recent examples of other state politicians avoided prison on ethics charges before making his ruling. Former lieutenant governor Ken Ard also received five years probation and community service in 2012 on seven counts related to illegal personal reimbursements and filing false campaign reports. Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell had a prison sentence suspended last year in favor of three years probation and a $30,000 fine after pleading guilty to six counts of using campaign funds for personal expenses. Both of those men were Republicans.
“People are fed out of the same spoon,” Judge Hood said, saying he wanted to avoid the appearance of “sentencing disparity.” He also noted Ford’s lack of a previous criminal history and his 66 years in age.
Ford admitted to the violations, but claimed he never personally benefited from them and was being targeted for political reasons. “When he says ‘personal use’ on clothes, that’s for veterans,” he told reporters after his sentencing. “I have three veterans programs a year. The whole Senate knows that… what they did to me in the last two years was totally inhuman and not necessary.”
Prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office argued Ford undoubtedly benefited personally from converting the campaign funds for a gym membership, clothing, car payments, and adult entertainment. Ford had argued the items were meant as gifts for staff and constituents.
But lead prosecutor Creighton Waters argued Ford knew what he was doing was wrong. “Some of this personal use was undeniable and no one in their right mind can can claim that’s okay,” he told the court Thursday.
Ford resigned in May 2013 after a Senate Ethics Committee investigation showed he had made dozens of questionable purchases with campaign funds. He cited health problems at the time, but the resignation came a day after the Ethics Committee revealed its findings in a public hearing.
During that 2013 hearing, a staffer laid out financial documents and bank records that he said showed discrepancies in what Ford reported as donations and expenses versus what bank records showed. The Ethics Committee staffer Lynn Odom said expenses that appeared to be personal were not reported on campaign disclosure forms, even though they were made with campaign funds. The state Attorney General’s Office said Ford also deposited thousands of dollars in campaign expenses into his personal bank account, rather than a special campaign account as state law requires. Prosecutors said Ford submitted “altered” checks while his campaign fund was being investigated.
Ford’s attorney William Runyon has maintained that Ford was simply a bad bookkeeper who improperly used his personal bank account to handle his campaign expenses.