Politics & Government

Bill targets gaps in campaign disclosures

Proposal would have candidates report donations in final 2 weeks

House lawmakers will consider requiring campaigns to report donations received in the two weeks between the final finance reports and Election Day.

Candidates are required to file finance reports between 15 and 20 days before primary and general elections. But the so-called "dark period" has become controversial in recent years as large donors have waited until after the pre-election deadline to give thousands of dollars to candidates.

The result, critics say, is that voters may not learn who is funding a candidate until the next campaign finance report is filed after the election.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, would require candidates to report contributions received during the dark period equal to half of the maximum total contribution - $500 for local candidates and $1,750 for statewide candidate - within 48 hours. The bill would require candidates to report expenses of more than $2,000 for local and $10,000 for statewide candidates during the period.

The bill would also require county, municipal and school board candidates to electronically report fundraising to the S.C. State Ethics Commission.

"The public ought to have access right away," Ballentine said. "I don't have a problem with anybody taking money from anyone," he said. "They just ought to be willing to disclose it."

The bill has become associated with New York real estate businessman Howard Rich, though Ballentine said he did not file the bill because of Rich.

Rich has spent millions in elections across the country, and particularly in South Carolina on candidates who support giving parents tax credits or vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

During the last State House elections in 2008, Rich poured tens of thousands into campaign accounts during the dark period.

For instance, Rich and associated businesses donated at least $21,000 during the dark period for Democrat Annie McDaniel's unsuccessful Chester and Fairfield counties House of Representatives bid, according to State Ethics Commission records. Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, received $15,000 from Rich and his associates during the period.

Efforts to reach Rich were unsuccessful.

Democrats have jumped on Ballentine's bill, adding campaign finance reform as part of their 2010 agenda. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said Democrats planned to require more reporting, including third-party group spending during the dark period.

Stavrinakis said he is not interested in limiting what donors can give, but that "the public has a right to know what everybody is giving and who's spending money."

But Ross Shealy, a Columbia attorney who has formerly documented Rich's donations on blogs, said Rich is circumventing campaign limits by donating through his numerous corporations and limited liability partnerships.

"It's a step in the right direction, because it has proven too easy to hide controversial contributions," said Shealy, who has spoken to civic groups about campaign finance. "But our Legislature also needs to prevent our campaign contribution limits from being easily evaded in the first place. Transparency doesn't fix much if one person can still contribute over 20 times the normal limit."

Ballentine admits that donors could circumvent the new rules by writing smaller checks, but more of them. Others note that wealthy candidates could loan themselves money, to be repaid with donations after the election.

But Ballentine said the bill would improve disclosure, and he was glad the House would debate it more than a year after he first proposed the idea.

"It's election season and (lawmakers) see the frustration out there," Ballentine said. "They realize, 'Hey, that's probably something we should be doing.'"