AS BAD AS IT WAS to have a tenth of our Legislature indicted on vote-selling charges, I think the lowest point of Operation Lost Trust came when we saw the videotape of then-Rep. Thomas Limehouse, who said he’d be happy to support a gambling bill for “a couple of suits and five or six shirts.”
The pettiness of it all — other legislators went for as little as $1,000 — prompted one disgusted woman to tell The Miami Herald that it seemed that “you can buy South Carolina politicians at Kmart.”
I was reminded of that a week ago as I listened to Attorney General Alan Wilson announce the indictments against just-resigned Lt. Gov. Ken Ard.
It was easy enough to understand why Mr. Wilson decided to call in the grand jury last summer. Investigators kept finding donations that didn’t match up to donors. Even if there hadn’t been all those rumors about Mr. Ard setting up straw men to hide illegally large donations, it would have been reasonable to assume that was what he had done. Why else would someone go to the trouble of padding the reported contributions of some donors and creating other donors out of whole cloth? Why indeed?
As it turns out, it wasn’t an attempt to violate campaign-finance laws, although that happened in the process. It was an attempt to commit political fraud, by convincing voters that more people were supporting him than actually were.
What a very petty thing to do. Sort of like selling your vote for a couple of suits and five or six shirts.
The indictment says that Mr. Ard “made public statements regarding these political contributions in an effort to convey the notion that there was broad financial support in the community for his campaign” and “intended to generate the fraudulent impression among South Carolina voters that he, as a candidate, enjoyed broader public financial support than was actually the case.”
The thing is, politicians do that sort of thing every day. I don’t mean filing false reports to make it look like they have more support than they do — although some legislators tell me this has become commonplace. I mean they attempt to “generate the fraudulent impression” that they have “broader public financial support than was actually the case.”
They put out news releases and send out tweets about huge campaign accounts, and don’t bother to mention that most of the money is their own. And it’s perfectly legal.
They send out copies of their campaign-disclosure reports before they file them with the State Ethics Commission, and reporters and bloggers rely on that information as if it were official. They could fill those reports with phony donors, and it would be perfectly legal. It only becomes a crime when they file them with the commission.
Bill Connor, whom Mr. Ard defeated in the 2010 Republican primary, says those bogus contributions did serious damage to his campaign, and that might be true. But isn’t that what you’d expect the person who lost to Mr. Ard to say? The deceit didn’t scare Mr. Connor into abandoning his campaign. It didn’t stop him from raising $350,000, which is a pretty significant amount for an office with no power. And I feel sure it didn’t win Mr. Ard any significant number of votes in the primary; the most frustrating thing about our campaign-disclosure system is that voters don’t pay any attention to how much money candidates are raising or, more importantly, who they’re raising it from.
So very petty. Did he even need to do this in order to win?
Mr. Ard’s conviction might make some candidates think twice about such deceit, but I doubt it. Anybody devious enough to think up this sort of scheme would realize that it was pure accident that he got caught: He made some stupid expenditures, which attracted the attention of reporters, and then said some stupid things, which attracted the attention of the Ethics Commission, and then lied about the expenditures, which got people talking about things they normally wouldn’t have talked about and digging into things they normally wouldn’t dig into.
The same sort of accidental discovery occurred a year earlier, when the Senate Ethics Committee figured out that Sen. Jake Knotts’ reports had in fact done what investigators initially thought Mr. Ard’s did: disguised illegally large donations. That discovery never would have occurred had Mr. Knotts not been so terribly sloppy with his reporting.
Accepting illegal donations is a much more serious assault on our system of elections and government than pretending to have donors you don’t have, but the same shortcomings in the law keep us from detecting both crimes, and they both call for the same solution.
State ethics officials do nothing to detect fraud unless someone files a complaint. That means people who deliberately hide or disguise illegal donations or expenditures or make up donors — that is, the people who are not fit for office — get caught only if the stars happen to line up perfectly. As they have done precisely twice now since the ethics law was passed two decades ago.
We’ll never catch all the people who violate our campaign law, even if we spend more money than anyone could justify to thoroughly investigate all candidates’ campaign reports. But we can increase the odds of catching them by conducting random audits, like the IRS does, to make sure all the money that flowed into and out of the campaign account was reported, and to make sure the names on the reports match up with names on bank records.
Increasing the odds of catching them — combined with higher fines, and the criminal prosecution of Mr. Ard — ought to significantly reduce the number of politicians willing to gamble that they can get away with defrauding the public. And that ought to be near the top of the Legislature’s agenda these days.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571.