Politics & Government

SC bill would force convicted politicians to pay to replace them

Fanning
Fanning

When former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts resigned and pleaded guilty to conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants in 2014, S.C. taxpayers paid more than $100,000 to replace him.

When then-Richland County Councilman Kelvin Washington was removed by then-Gov. Nikki Haley for failing to file income taxes, Richland County residents’ tab for the ensuing special election was $62,751.

Now, an S.C. senator has proposed sticking the bill to the convicted officials – from city council members and sheriffs to state legislators and congressmen.

Under a proposal filed Thursday by state Sen. Mike Fanning, elected officials who commit felonies while in office could be ordered by a judge to pay for the special elections needed to fill their seats.

The proposal would require solicitors to ask for that restitution, and it would authorize judges to order it.

The Fairfield Democrat says his bill would save taxpayer money that could be spent more productively on public education.

“That money is a precious resource, and there’s a limited amount of money to meet the needs that we have,” Fanning said. “We cannot continue to fund special elections because individuals are bringing harm on themselves. They need to be forced as part of their punishment to repay the taxpayers of South Carolina.”

The bill could be the first of its kind in the country. Staff at the National Conference of State Legislatures were not aware Friday of any other states with similar policies.

But the idea – which has the conceptual support of the state attorney general’s office – is not unprecedented.

In 2008, after then-S.C. Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was busted for cocaine, U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson ordered the millionaire to pay $28,676 back to the state for the cost of a special legislative session to name his successor.

That ruling came after longtime S.C. government watchdog John Crangle argued state taxpayers were owed restitution for Ravenel’s breach of trust.

“There are over 4 million victims of this crime,” Crangle said at the sentencing hearing.

Crangle, now the S.C. Progressive Network’s government relations director, is pushing Fanning’s bill. S.C. House Ethics Committee chair Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, plans to introduce similar legislation in two weeks.

“When you add up the numbers of the last 25 years, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money that has been paid to hold special elections,” Crangle said. “It’s important to make the bad guys pay.”

It is unclear exactly how much money special elections to replace convicted politicians have cost S.C. taxpayers over the years.

S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said his office does not have a definitive list of those elections.

However, he said, a special election to replace an S.C. senator typically costs the state about $85,000, while filling a smaller S.C. House seat typically costs about $35,000. Individual cities and counties also rack up their own costs.

Special elections recently have been required to replace:

▪  Former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who resigned in 2013 during a hearing into allegations he misused campaign donations

▪  Former state Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Horry, who resigned in November 2015 and ultimately pleaded guilty to a charge of third-degree assault and battery

▪  Former state Rep. Eddie Southard, R-Berkeley, who resigned last year after a House page filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.

Aiken County officials are organizing a special election to replace former Republican state Rep. Chris Corley, who resigned his House seat in January after his indictment on felony domestic violence charges.

Since 2010, at least seven S.C. sheriffs, including Metts, also have been convicted of crimes and forced from office.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

SC sheriffs in hot water

At least seven S.C. sheriffs have been convicted of crimes and resigned or been forced from office since 2010.

▪  In 2014, Lexington County Sheriff James Metts resigned and pleaded guilty to conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants.

▪  In September 2014, former Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson was found guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He received 30 months in prison.

▪  In April 2014, former Chesterfield County Sheriff Sam Parker was sentenced to two years in prison and three months probation for letting inmates have unsupervised visits with women and sleep outside the jail with access to TV and alcohol.

▪  In January 2013, Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin pleaded guilty to misconduct in office for taking kickbacks on county money paid to a local body shop and having a state prison inmate work on his personal vehicles and property. He received probation, 100 hours of community service and had to pay $4,445 in restitution.

▪  In 2012, then-Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth pleaded to misconduct in office for misusing state prison inmates who were at his county’s jail. He received a $1,000 fine and five years’ probation.

▪  In 2011, former Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was sent to prison for taking bribes from alleged drug dealers. He was sentenced to 17 years after being convicted on 38 charges of drug conspiracy and racketeering.

▪  In 2010, former Union County Sheriff Howard Wells was sentenced to three months in prison for loaning money to an informant for exorbitant fees, not reporting the earnings and lying to federal agents.

In addition

▪  In 2010, Orangeburg County Sheriff Larry Williams died. Two years later, investigators alleged he apparently had stolen some $200,000 in county money, taking reimbursements from state and federal sources and spreading it around to 11 different bank accounts. Last year, the county received $35,000 each from the fiancee of Williams and the credit union where she worked. The two did not admit they did anything wrong.

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