The state’s biggest ethics offender – racking up 106 violations in one political campaign – will not serve time behind bars.
Lt. Gov Ken Ard will remain free under a sentence of five years probation, a $5,000 fine and 300 hours of community service. Circuit Judge G. Thomas Cooper Jr. decided Ard’s punishment Friday after listening for 50 minutes to character witnesses and pleas for mercy, including from Ard himself.
“I stand here humble, apologetic,” Ard said after pleading guilty to seven charges just a few hours after he resigned the job that had him first in the line of succession to become governor. “Your honor, I can’t undo anything. All I can do is say I’m sorry.
“I wish it would go away. But I made this mess. I hope you will accept my apology, because this is from the bottom of my heart.”
After an eight-month investigation, the state grand jury ended the public speculation Friday. Ard was indicted, resigned and was sentenced – all in one day.
Ard already had paid a civil fine for spending campaign donations for his personal use.
But S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said Ard also ran a scheme of “phantom contributions” intended to make it appear that Ard’s candidacy had a groundswell of support as well as to intimidate anyone who might seek to challenge him.
Ard funneled at least $75,000 of his own money to others so they could give donations back to him in their names, Wilson said. Ard also spent $87,500 giving himself donations in the names of 27 people who were unaware they were being listed as contributors.
If Ard, 48, violates the conditions of his probation, he faces one year in prison and the $5,000 fine, Cooper said, adding, “I think you’ve suffered and will continue to suffer.” The maximum penalty Ard faced was seven years and a $35,000 fine.
He was indicted Friday morning in a corruption investigation by the state grand jury, which opened the probe in July after the State Ethics Commission charged Ard with 69 counts of spending campaign money for his personal use and 23 counts of failing to disclose campaign expenses as part of his race to become lieutenant governor.
He was indicted on seven counts of ethics violations over his mishandling of money during that 2010 race, including converting campaign funds for tickets to the SEC championship football game in Atlanta, buying clothes and a flat-screen TV and having a confidant dole out $100 bills from a paper bag.
The phantom contribution scheme is unique in S.C. politics, Wilson said.
“To our knowledge, the creation of such a fictitious campaign has never been criminally charged before in this state’s history,” Wilson said in announcing the indictment.
Ard acknowledged he used the $75,000 to get four friends, relatives and associates to recruit others to submit the money as genuine donations from political supporters. Those phony contributors were then reimbursed from Ard’s own funds.
Ard also took one genuine contribution of $2,000 and reported it as $3,500, the maximum allowable from an individual donor.
Ard and his five-man defense team repeatedly said in a Richland County courtroom that he did not know or understand the state’s ethics laws that control campaign contributions, the reporting of donations and that falsifying the reports are all illegal. Several times, his lawyers said what Ard had done was unintentional and “mistakes.”
Defense attorney Johnny Gasser asked the judge to consider that Ard misused only his own money. “All the money that was used was his personal money not other people’s money,” the former state and federal prosecutor said.
“He was and should have been held to a higher standard,” Gasser admitted in court. “This was not an election for a small-time city council seat. He should have known what the rules are.”
Still, Ard is a good husband, father and person, witnesses for him testified.
Eddie Floyd, a USC board member and a political powerbroker in the Pee Dee, where Ard is from, said he was the person who told Ard he didn’t need campaign professionals advising him in the race for lieutenant governor.
“I betrayed this young man, who ruined his career by the advice I gave him,” Floyd said, choking with emotion.
Ken Jackson, Ard’s partner in a real estate business, said Ard never was good with details. “He’s not very organized in his business and personal paperwork,” Jackson said.
Attorney General Wilson took strong exception to that characterization that Ard had made mistakes. “We would not have pursued the prosecution of a mistake,” the fellow Republican said after the plea hearing.
Before Ard, the state grand jury had never investigated a sitting state constitutional officer. Federal grand juries, however, have indicted two state constitutional officers in recent years, forcing them from office. Each pleaded guilty to criminal charges and spent time in federal prison.
Ard was one of the state Republican Party’s rising political stars before his career began to crumble under successive investigations. His rise to lieutenant governor from Florence County Council was not impeded by a history of earlier ethics violations dating to 2004.
Ard’s lawyer during the most recent ethics investigation said Ard had used $2,543 in campaign money to go on an official trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with Sen. Lindsey Graham’s staff.
But Graham’s staff said there was no meeting. In fact, investigators found, the $2,543 went for airfare for Ard, his wife and three children, meals and limousine service.
Ethics investigators also found $3,056 that his lawyer said was spent for office equipment to be used in the campaign. It was actually used to buy things like a $335 PlayStation, a $975 flat-screen television and two $600 iPads.
Among Ard’s questionable expenses were football tickets to the Southeastern Conference championship game and a $799 dress for his wife to wear to the inauguration.
In June, Ard settled the civil ethics investigation from the 2010 campaign by agreeing to pay $48,400 in fines for 106 ethics violations and reimbursing his campaign $12,121.35.
The next month, Wilson’s office and SLED opened a criminal investigation through the state grand jury. The results of that probe were announced Friday.
Cathy Hazelwood, the chief attorney for the State Ethics Commission, said Friday that Ard’s 106 violations is the most she could find from a single civil complaint in the agency’s records.
A Charleston City Council member was charged with 88 in one civil complaint before he was prosecuted and the commission dismissed its complaint. Former Gov. Mark Sanford, who paid a $74,000 fine plus $36,500 to cover investigation and other commission costs and $29,700 to reimburse state agencies and his campaign travel and personal expenses – the biggest fine in commission history – had 36 ethics counts against him. Sanford was not charged criminally.
Wilson, a fellow Republican, said he knows, likes and sought political support from Ard. Wilson, who was elected in the same campaign, said he did not accept a contribution from Ard.
“I entered this day with a heavy heart,” Wilson said. “I leave it with a heavy heart.”
Wilson said he believes the sentence of probation will be a deterrent to other elected officials. He would not say whether he believes state ethics laws should be strengthened.
The Attorney General’s Office, the State Law Enforcement Division, and Ard’s legal team worked together to bring the charges, arrive at a guilty plea and effect Ard’s resignation all in one day, Wilson said.
That was done in part to help the state Senate, which is not in session on Fridays, continue its work “without drama,” the attorney general said.
Gasser, one of Ard’s lawyers, told the judge his client “should get credit” for not dragging out the case.
Wilson said the investigation is closed.
Staff writer John Monk contributed to this article.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.