Former state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston was given a suspended, seven-year sentence Thursday for using thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for personal expenses.
Judge Robert Hood also sentenced Ford to five years of probation and 350 hours of community service. Hood also ordered him to pay more than $69,000 in restitution to the state’s general fund.
In January, Ford pleaded guilty before Hood to misconduct in office, forgery and two counts of ethics violations. Prosecutors dismissed four charges against Ford in return. He faced a maximum of 15 years in prison.
Hood said a major reason he did not give Ford any prison time was to avoid “unwarranted disparities” in similar situations.
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“People are fed out of the same spoon,” Hood told the court.
After court, assistant deputy state attorney general Creighton Waters said Hood was likely referring to former House speaker Bobby Harrell and lieutenant governor Ken Ard, each of whom received probation after pleading guilty in criminal court.
Ford’s crimes were misdemeanors. He is 66 years old.
At the January hearing, Waters summarized Ford’s crimes, telling Hood that Ford had committed some 350 separate violations of state law. The plea agreement had him pleading guilty to four counts, for violations between 2008 and 2013.
Those 350 violations included Ford converting an untold amount of campaign money to his personal use, forging copies of checks he gave to state investigators to cover up misdeeds and filing false statements in both his Senate disclosure forms and in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Waters said.
Ford improperly spent campaign money on car payments, making cash withdrawals and purchases at novelty stores, restaurants, department stores and gas stations, prosecutors said.
The charges to which Ford pleaded guilty stemmed from a state Senate investigation two years ago.
In that investigation, Waters told Hood, Senate ethics committee lawyer Lyn Odom had first noticed inconsistencies in the Democrat’s campaign expense filings.
When Ford provided bank statements, Odom found “discrepancies between what the statements reflected and what the activity in Mr. Ford ’s campaign account was,” Waters said.
Specifically, “there were a number of expenditures that were not reported, as well as campaign contributions,” Waters said.
Ford also furnished Odom checks for various expenditures, but when Odom compared what Ford had given him with actual bank records, he discovered that Ford “had altered those checks to hide the true payee or purpose of those particular expenditures. That is the factual basis for the forgery,” Waters said
Ford’s 2013 resignation, on the second day of the Senate Ethics Committee’s public hearings on his alleged violations, saved him the embarrassment of being expelled by the Senate, Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said at that time.
Waters also said that in Ford’s 2010 gubernatorial bid, State Ethics Commission investigators determined that Ford had written some 60 campaign checks to himself for personal use, made 108 improper debit card transactions and funneled 64 campaign contributions into his personal account.
Following Ford’s resignation, the S.C. attorney general’s office and SLED began looking into his affairs in earnest.
In November, a Richland County grand jury indicted Ford on eight counts of violating state ethics laws in connection with spending thousands of dollars in campaign money for personal expenses as well as other ethics crimes.
In the Senate, where Ford served for some 20 years, he was known as a likeable fellow given to jokes whose sometimes brash speech could veer toward the politically incorrect or even clownish, as in 2011, when he praised the work ethic of undocumented Mexican immigrants: “I know brothers – and I’m talking about black guys – they are not going to do the dirty work at Boeing, to do that hauling and all that building, the dirty work,” said Ford, an African-American.
As a young man, Ford was a civil rights protester, and the S.C. Legislative Manual, based on material he furnished, said he had been arrested 73 times during the civil rights era. Despite that past, he publicly declared his regard for the Confederate flag and its soldiers.
Ard was the state’s biggest ethics offender – racking up 106 violations in one political campaign. In 2012, Circuit Judge G. Thomas Cooper Jr. gave Ard five years probation, a $5,000 fine and 300 hours of community service.
Ard was indicted on seven counts of ethics violations over his mishandling of money during his 2010 race. He created phantom donors, converted campaign funds for tickets to the SEC championship football game in Atlanta, bought clothes and a flat-screen TV and had a confidant dole out $100 bills from a paper bag.
Last year, Harrell pleaded guilty to illegally using campaign funds for personal expenses after being indicted by a Richland County grand jury. Investigators found he falsified state expense accounts to increase the money he could be reimbursed for.
Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning gave Harrell six years in prison but suspended them if Harrell successfully serves three years on probation.