The efforts of Gov. Mark Sanford's lawyers to dismiss as trivial technical violations the governor's use of campaign funds to pay for his hunting trip in Ireland and other personal expenditures is part of an obvious effort to fool the public into thinking that Sanford has really done nothing seriously wrong. In fact, the governor's alleged personal use of some $3,000 of campaign contributions violates the most important provision of the ethics act that was passed in 1991 to stop widespread corruption of elected officials in South Carolina.
I was involved in lobbying for the ban on the personal use of campaign donations when the act was being written in 1990 and 1991. The ban was one reaction to the FBI's Operation Lost Trust investigation, which found that several of the legislators who took bribes tried to disguise them as campaign contributions. As the laws of South Carolina at the time of the scandal allowed candidates to spend campaign contributions for personal use, it was easy for a crooked legislator to call bribe money campaign contributions and still spend it on cars, clothes, golf, hunting trips, drugs or anything else - which, in fact, many officials frequently did.
Not only did the use of campaign contributions for personal expenditures facilitate bribery, but such use also seemed to smack of both fraud and breach of trust. Candidates who raised money by telling honest contributors it would be used to pay campaign expenses when, in fact, it was used to enrich the candidates were engaged in deceit, taking money from donors under false pretenses.
Very few honest citizens would donate to a candidate knowing he was pretending to raise money for campaign expenses such as advertising and staffing when, in fact, he was scheming to spend the money on cars, clothes or drugs. Indeed, it is likely that such dishonest candidates would be booted out the door by most citizens of South Carolina.
Furthermore, when a candidate asks for and receives money from citizens for campaign expenses, it can be argued that the candidate holds the funds in trust on behalf of those citizens and has an obligation to them to make certain that the funds are used only for the intended purpose - that is, only for campaign expenses, and certainly not for personal expenses. To do otherwise would be substantially the same as the crime of breach of trust with fraudulent intent.
This is especially so in a state such as South Carolina, where the law bars diversion of campaign contributions for personal use. Many, if not most, contributors feel safe assuming their donations will be spent only on campaign costs, because to do otherwise would be violative of the ethics act. What law-abiding citizen would give money to a candidate knowing the recipient was intending to perpetrate a crime with the money?
As much as the governor's attorneys try to deny or trivialize every aspect of the governor's devious and self-serving conduct, they simply can't get around the fact that the conversion of campaign contributions to personal use has been a crime prohibited by the ethics act since 1992. One would hope that both the General Assembly and the attorney general will make an object lesson of any official who violates our critically important ban on misusing campaign funds.