COLUMBIA, SC — State Rep. Harold Mitchell was ordered Thursday to pay $23,387 in fines and restitution for misspending campaign contributions and poor record keeping.
The state House Ethics Committee spent two years investigating complaints against the five-term Spartanburg Democrat. The complaints were submitted to the panel by the state Attorney General’s office after Mitchell pleaded guilty to filing his taxes late.
House Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, called Mitchell’s ethics investigation “a case of sloppy bookkeeping.”
The order comes as the S.C. Legislature debates whether to add an independent investigative panel to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers, constitutional officers and judges. The House and Senate now separately investigate and prosecute ethics allegations against their own members, a system that critics say taints oversight of lawmakers.
But lawmakers say the committees’ decisions to sanction Mitchell and former Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat who resigned last year after a Senate ethics probe, show that legislators can police their members.
“This clears the air,” Bingham said. “We have a job to do, and we’ll do it, no matter who comes before us.”
The House Ethics Committee soon could hear an ethics case against Speaker Bobby Harrell. The Charleston Republican is fighting with Attorney General Alan Wilson before the S.C. Supreme Court over whether allegations that Harrell used his office for personal gain should be sent to Bingham’s panel instead of a grand jury.
In Mitchell’s case, the Spartanburg Democrat will have to pay back $7,387 to his campaign for spending contributions on dry cleaning, personal loans, oil changes, lodging for a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina and a cell-phone bill, according to a copy of the Ethics Committee order. He also will have to reimburse his campaign for various expenses that he claimed but could not produce receipts.
Mitchell also will have to pay $16,000 in fines. That includes $5,000 for unintentional technical ethics violations including failing to maintain proper records, transferring $12,015 to a nonprofit development corporation that he runs, cash withdrawals of more than $100 and other violations for spending cash from campaign coffers, the order said.
The remainder of the fine, $11,000, comes from 18 violations of spending contributions on non-campaign expenses.
The committee could have fined Mitchell up to $2,000 for each violation or recommended his expulsion from office.
Mitchell also must submit campaign bank statements and campaign expenditure receipts for four years and cannot have a campaign petty cash account for four years, the order said. He is banned from contributing campaign funds to nonprofits with ties to him, his family or business partners.
Bingham said Mitchell’s cooperation during the investigation was taken into account in the penalties. He said the committee used previous sanctions by the House and Senate ethics panels in determining Mitchell’s penalty.
“He’s been through an awful lot,” Bingham said. “He’s still highly respected in the community having been re-elected” during the investigation.
Mitchell, who did not attend the ethics hearing, said he had not read the order when approached after the House adjourned Thursday.
“Seven years, I’m glad it’s finally over,” he said, referring back to the start of his tax case.