Former SC senator to pay $45,000 for ethics violations

05/14/2014 9:39 PM

05/14/2014 9:41 PM

Former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, has been fined $30,000 and ordered to send nearly $15,000 to the Children’s Trust for using campaign donations for personal expenses, then trying to cover it up.

Findings presented Wednesday to the Senate Ethics Committee show Ford zeroed out his campaign account 10 days after resigning last year and used the money to pay his bills. The $14,758 the committee ordered him to send to the Children’s Trust corresponds to the amount that bank records show he withdrew.

Ford didn’t attend the hearing, but his attorney agreed he spent the money on personal expenses.

The order also refers the case to the attorney general’s office for further investigation. The latest allegations will add to those Attorney General Alan Wilson still is reviewing from last year, when Ford resigned during hearings on similar allegations, ensuring his colleagues could not expel him.

Bank documents show Ford emptied his campaign bank account June 10 by writing a check to Twin City Outreach Mission Black Community Developer’s Program, an organization he started decades ago.

Checks posted to the Twin City account between June and January show the money paid for credit card bills, rent and utility bills, tailoring and clothing alterations, car payments, lawn services and personal loan payments, according to an agreement of facts his attorney, William Runyon, signed two weeks ago.

Despite the agreement, Ford says he is innocent.

“These allegations are completely unfounded and are totally false,” Ford said in an email Wednesday, blasting his former colleagues for not showing “common decency and respect” to a 21-year veteran of the Senate.

Asked about the email, Runyon said he couldn’t address Ford’s public-relations campaign.

As he did last year, Runyon blamed bad accounting.

“Once again, his accounting is just atrocious,” he said. He noted state law allows lawmakers to give to a charity, though the committee found Twin City lacks tax-exempt status and therefore isn’t one. “It comes down to no proper bookkeeping.”

Senate Ethics Committee member Luke Rankin, R-Horry, said that claim just doesn’t wash, especially considering last year’s allegations. “It is not bad bookkeeping.”

The latest case arose after Ford notified the committee last October that he’d closed his campaign account, prompting questions about his reported balance. Rather than respond, Ford amended his campaign disclosures – twice – initially claiming in November that he’d spent nearly $12,000 on printing services, then claiming in January nearly $8,000 in mileage reimbursements.

He seemed to revise that further Wednesday, saying in his email that he spent more than $15,000 on brochures, birthday cards, envelopes and postage. Subpoenaed bank records revealed otherwise, according to the signed agreement.

“On the face of the documents, it never added up,” Rankin said. “It’s unfortunate. I’d rather have been finished with this last year.”

Runyon said Ford thought Twin City Outreach qualified as a nonprofit under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church. He contends Twin City’s previous spending is above-board. The agreement that he used the money for personal benefit applies only to the $14,758, he said.

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