Ex-Sen. Robert Ford pleaded guilty Wednesday morning to misconduct in office, forgery and two counts of ethics violations.
The maximum prison sentence Ford is exposed to is 15 years, but he likely will get little or no time when sentenced in April. Prosecutors dismissed four charges against Ford in return for his plea on four other charges.
After leaving a 20-minute court hearing, Ford, 66, a Democrat from Charleston, told reporters at the Richland County courthouse he is “not guilty” but pleaded guilty to save money on attorneys’ fees.
“I ain’t no damn crook,” Ford said, stressing that he did not consider himself guilty of any crimes and that during his 20-year legislative career, he had done many good deeds. “None of the allegations were true – not one. Please understand that.”
Minutes earlier, assistant deputy state attorney general Creighton Waters had summarized Ford’s crimes, telling Circuit Judge Robert Hood that Ford had committed some 350 separate violations of state law. The plea agreement had him pleading guilty to four counts, for violations between 2008 and 2013.
Those 350 violations included Ford converting an untold amount of campaign money to his personal use, forging copies of checks he gave to state investigators to cover up misdeeds and filing false statements in both his Senate disclosure forms and in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Waters said. When Hood asked Ford – who had raised his right hand and was sworn to tell the truth – if he was in fact guilty to the charges, nine seconds ticked by.
Ford’s attorney, William Runyon, whispered to him: “You have to answer.”
Ford sighed. “Yes, sir,” he said finally.
Ford is to be sentenced the week of April 13.
By that time, prosecution and the defense can determine actual amounts of improperly taken money so Hood can use that in determining any restitution or fines. Waters gave no figure of misspent money in court, but it was possible from the number of violations that it could amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
The charges to which Ford pleaded guilty Wednesday stemmed from a state Senate investigation two years ago.
In that investigation, Waters told Hood, committee lawyer Lyn Odom had first noticed inconsistencies in Ford’s campaign expense filings.
When Ford provided bank statements, Odom found “discrepancies between what the statements reflected and what the activity in Mr. Ford’s campaign account was,” Waters said.
Specifically, “there were a number of expenditures that were not reported, as well as campaign contributions,” Waters said.
Ford also furnished Odom checks for various expenditures, but when Odom compared what Ford had given him with actual bank records, he discovered that Ford “had altered those checks to hide the true payee or purpose of those particular expenditures. That is the factual basis for the forgery.”
Prosecutors say Ford spent campaign money improperly on car payments, making cash withdrawals and purchases at novelty stores, restaurants, department stores and gas stations.
Ford’s 2013 resignation, on the second day of the Senate ethics committee’s public hearings on alleged violations, saved him the embarrassment of being expelled by the Senate, Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said at that time.
Waters also said that in Ford’s 2010 gubernatorial bid, State Ethics Commission investigators determined that Ford had written some 60 campaign checks to himself for personal use, made 108 improper debit card transactions and funneled 64 campaign contributions into his personal account.
Following Ford’s resignation, the S.C. attorney general’s office and SLED began looking into Ford’s affairs in earnest.
In November, a Richland County grand jury indicted Ford on eight counts of violating state ethics laws in connection with spending thousands of dollars in campaign money for personal expenses as well as other ethics crimes.
In the Senate, where Ford served for some 20 years, he was known as a likeable fellow given to jokes whose sometimes brash speech could veer toward the politically incorrect or even clownish, as in 2011, when he praised the work ethic of undocumented Mexican immigrants: “I know brothers – and I’m talking about black guys – they are not going to do the dirty work at Boeing, to do that hauling and all that building, the dirty work,” said Ford, an African-American.
As a young man, Ford was a civil rights protester, and the S.C. Legislative Manual, based on material he furnished, said he had been arrested 73 times during the civil rights era. Despite that past, he publicly declared his regard for the Confederate flag and its soldiers, soldiers that had they prevailed no doubt would have kept his ancestors in slavery.
Much of the money to which he pleaded guilty to misappropriating went to causes like homeless veterans and to help Senate staffers, Ford said.
“All you have to do is go into the Senate building, and ask them about Robert Ford,” he said.
Ford told reporters of Senate committee members: “They was on a witch hunt – they was out to get me, and they got me.”
John Crangle, president of the citizens’ watchdog group S.C. Common Cause, watched Ford’s guilty plea Wednesday and observed the ex-senator’s interviews.
“For him to deny he did anything wrong is dishonest,” Crangle said. “You can’t live in a schizoid universe like that – say one thing in the courtroom and another to the media.”