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E-mails entangle 2 GOP campaigns

Kelly Payne, left, and Richard Eckstrom
Kelly Payne, left, and Richard Eckstrom

South Carolina's reform movement suffered another blow Wednesday when Kelly Payne, a candidate for the Republican nomination for state superintendent of education, verified a series of leaked love e-mails to her came from Republican S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom.

Eckstrom is married. But he has been separated and living apart from his wife for two years, according to his re-election campaign. Payne, who is divorced, is a Dutch Fork High School teacher.

Eckstrom, 61, the state's top accountant, is one of the most influential members of the reform movement, which has pushed for smaller government, lower taxes and more accountability and transparency in state government. He holds one of the five seats on the State Budget and Control Board.

Eckstrom is the third high-ranking, statewide-elected Republican on that powerful board to become embroiled in a scandal:

- Republican state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel, a Charleston Republican, resigned from office, losing his seat on the budget board, after he was charged with possessing cocaine in 2007.

- Republican Gov. Mark Sanford of Sullivan's Island escaped demands that he resign and a move to impeach and remove him from office after he disappeared last summer for five days, only to return and acknowledge an affair with an Argentine woman.

Sanford, subsequently, repaid the state more than $3,000 for part of the state-paid costs of a trip to South America on which he saw his lover. Sanford still faces ethics charges and could face criminal charges.

ECKSTROM'S FUTURE

It remains to be seen how Eckstrom's e-mails will affect his own political career as well as the reform movement.

However, Eckstrom's re-election campaign acknowledged he is the author of the e-mails to Payne, which date from April 7, 2009, to Feb. 14, 2010.

In the e-mails, Eckstrom expresses his love for Payne, 40, quotes Scripture and acknowledges he has ducked out of meetings with the governor, agency heads and the Budget and Control Board to take her calls.

In a statement Wednesday, Eckstrom said he will continue seeking re-election. Thus far, he faces no opposition in the June GOP primary or the November general election.

Eckstrom said he will not comment about his private life.

"We're not commenting on personal stuff like this, for one because it doesn't have a thing to do with the duties of the office, and also because introducing private issues will only distract from the necessary day-to-day financial issues we deal with," Eckstrom's statement said.

"Ask about state finances or government transparency, and we'll be happy to talk at length, but I think some folks, and some people in the media, sometime want to focus too much on the private lives of public figures - things involving their lives outside their offices - and not enough on the jobs they've been given to do."

Eckstrom was not willing Wednesday to discuss the future of the reform movement for this story.

This isn't the first time Eckstrom has grappled with scandal.

In 1997, he acknowledged he stood "awkwardly close" to a female staff member but denied charges by the woman that he tried to kiss and embrace her. The staffer sued Eckstrom, and the state settled the lawsuit for $57,500 in taxpayer money.

PAYNE'S FUTURE

Payne said in a prepared statement Wednesday that she will continue her campaign for state education superintendent.

A social studies teacher in the Irmo-Chapin Lexington-Richland 5 school district, Payne faces two opponents, Newberry College President Mick Zais and Furman University professor Brent Nelsen, in the June GOP primary.

In her statement, Payne, a political newcomer, said her e-mails were leaked "in what appears to be a deliberate effort to undermine my candidacy."

"Political campaigns should be about ideas," she said in the statement. "And my campaign will continue to be about promoting the specific funding, accountability and choice reforms that are needed to advance academic achievement in South Carolina."

Payne's rival campaigns denied leaking the e-mails Wednesday, saying they did not have copies of her e-mails nor did they distribute them.

Those who had endorsed Payne's campaign, including House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said they now are in wait-and-see mode.

"I'll need to talk to Kelly. I think she ought to evaluate her situation," Bingham said.

Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Lexington, a member of the reform movement, said he endorsed Payne based on her classroom qualifications and has no plans to pull his endorsement.

Ballentine said it was too early to say whether the movement will lose Eckstrom's seat in the election. "But if we do, there are plenty of reform-minded individuals who can certainly step in."

Carol Fowler, chairwoman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said the scandals have taken a toll.

"If those people - Mark Sanford and Eckstrom and Ravenel and (disgraced former state Agriculture Commissioner Charlie) Sharpe - if they are representative of the people who want very badly to tell the rest of us how to live our lives, then, yes, they've taken a hit," Fowler said. "They were all elected bragging about family values and South Carolina families have higher values than that."

But Randy Page, director of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, said the ideas of transparency, accountability and better government aren't dead.

"Thankfully, the reform movement is bigger than any one person or organization," he said. "While a number of us are very disappointed with some of the leaders . . . there are number of people in the trenches day in and day out working for these things."

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