A state House panel agreed Monday on a proposal that would ban using campaign money to pay fines or court fees for ethics related violations.
But lawmakers debated whether officials should be able to use campaign money to defend themselves when accused of breaking ethics laws.
Some state representatives said officials should not have to pay out-of-pocket to defend themselves, for example, against baseless lawsuits brought by political opponents – unless they are proven guilty.
But other lawmakers, including Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, said officials should foot the bill if they are indicted by a grand jury. Campaign donors, Norman added, do not donate to finance legal defenses.
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Driving the debate was a recent, high profile example: When ex-House Speaker Bobby Harrell faced criminal allegations, he hired lawyers and paid them from his campaign account.
Norman asked fellow lawmakers whether they thought Harrell’s donors would have given the money had they known it would be used to defend him in court: “How many would have said, ‘Yes?’ ”
While they did not reach consensus on attorneys fees and pushed back discussion until the legislative session starts in January, the panel agreed that lawmakers should not use campaign cash to pay ethics fines and court fees.
The House panel – set up by new House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, in reaction to his predecessor’s indictment on campaign finance abuses and subsequent guilty plea – backed other ethics proposals.
All of the recommendations have a long way to go before becoming law. Proposals advanced Monday also would limit how campaign money can be spent by:
• Setting more specific guidelines and limits on paying for mileage, lodging and phones
• Banning immediate family members from being paid for election work
• Requiring that campaign workers be paid at the same time that they have provided the work
• Stopping cash payments for campaign expenses