Israel Romero, the Democratic candidate for state superintendent of education, is not eligible for election because of a felony conviction. Romera also says he holds at least one degree that cannot be substantiated, research by The Greenville News and Independent Mail reveals.
Romero was convicted of a felony in 2008 — the unauthorized practice of law, according to records, and he was incarcerated as late as April 2009.
In 1996, South Carolina passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting convicted felons from running for office within 15 years of serving time.
Romero, who also filed to run for the S.C. House’s District 20 seat in 2012, did not return five phone calls or multiple emails for comment over the past serveral days.
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Romero is challenging incumbent Republican Molly Spearman for a position that manages a multibillion-dollar budget and oversees school systems throughout the state that educate more than 750,000 students from prekindergarten through 12th grade.
According to state law, “A political party must not certify any candidate who does not or will not by the time of the general election, or as otherwise required by law, meet the qualifications for the office for which the candidate has filed, and such candidate’s name shall not be placed on a primary ballot.”
Marci Andino, executive director of the State Election Commission, said political parties are responsible for determining candidate qualifications. Parties have the right to not certify candidates, she said.
“If it is later determined that a candidate had a felony conviction within the past 15 years, the party may work with the candidate to get them to voluntarily withdraw,” Andino said by email. “Depending on the timing of the finding, the candidate’s name may be removed from the ballot. If the finding occurs late in the election process, the candidate’s name would remain on the ballot; however, the name would not be displayed on the election results reporting system.”
Trav Robertson, chair of the S.C. Democratic Party, said the law is unclear on whether political parties are required to certify candidates for public office. Robertson said he has received conflicting messages on two prior occasions, one involving the Clarendon County coroner’s primary in 2018 and one involving the McCormick County sheriff’s election in 2016.
In the McCormick case, the party certified the candidate but questions later were raised about whether the candidate held the proper qualifications.
In Clarendon, the party declined to certify a candidate after finding she did not meet the requirements for office. The candidate then sued to be certified as the nominee. The state Supreme Court is set to examine both cases this fall.
Robertson said his party does not conduct background checks of candidates, though they are required to sign statements of intent saying they are qualified to run. State Republican party officials did not return messages seeking comment Monday about their process for checking candidates’ qualifications.
Romero is a Taylors resident who said he is a retired teacher and writer originally from Honduras. He has not reported any contributions or spending for the superintendent’s race but posts frequently to Facebook and LinkedIn with commentary on political issues.
“Israel Romero did, in Greenville County, willfully and unlawfully practice or solicit the cause of another person in a legal action without being admitted and sworn as an attorney,” according to the indictment from his case in 2008.
Romero presented himself as an attorney in federal court while trying to represent someone on an immigration case, according to an arrest warrant.
He was ordered to pay $2,000 in restitution and served a little more than three months in jail followed by a year of probation, according to the indictment and the Greenville County Department of Public Safety.
Robertson said he will vote for Romero for state education superintendent anyway.
“He seems like a very humble and very unique individual who wants to do right by the people of South Carolina and the people in his community over in Taylors,” Robertson said.
In a previous interview with The Greenville News and Independent Mail, Romero said that he is running for state superintendent of education because of his four young grandchildren, three of whom already attend public elementary schools.
“I have an interest in educational enhancement in this state because I want them to be better educated,” Romero said. “I have knowledge, experience, capacity and the desire. I am an educator, and it is a passion for me.”
Romero said he decided to run for the position when he did not see any other Democratic candidates. He wants to see a political shift in the state.
“To make a change, everyone must vote straight Democrat,” Romero said.
Romero lists five different degrees among his qualifications for the position. These include a doctorate in educational administration from Atlantic International University in Hawaii, a juris doctor from La Salle University, a master’s in educational leadership from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, a master’s in business management from Almeda University in Idaho and an undergraduate degree from San Pedro University in Honduras.
La Salle University in Pennsylvania never has offered a juris doctor degree, according to the university’s registrar’s office. While a LaSalle Extension University, based in Illinois, once existed and awarded law degrees, Romero said his degree was from Pennsylvania. He didn’t respond to requests for clarification.
According to the Better Business Bureau, Almeda University is no longer in business and is not accredited by the U.S. Department of Education, and its degrees are not legal for academic or business uses in Oregon, New Jersey, North Dakota, Washington and Idaho.
Spearman, the incumbent, said she has not met Romero but read one of his writings and found it “confusing.”
“It did not appear to me that he had a good concept of what the duties of this job are and that, in this job, you are running a state agency of about 1,000 people,” Spearman said.
A search of records found no arrests for Spearman, who won 57 percent of the vote in 2014 to beat Democratic candidate Tom Thompson.