Politics & Government

SC judge slams GOP Senate Caucus, orders it to stop anti-Harpootlian ads

Benjamin Dunn and Dick Harpootlian
Benjamin Dunn and Dick Harpootlian

A South Carolina judge has ordered the state Senate’s GOP Caucus to stop buying TV and online ads opposing Democrat Dick Harpootlian in his race against Republican Benjamin Dunn for the Senate’s District 20 seat, representing parts of Richland and Lexington counties.

Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning said Friday the GOP Caucus violated state law when it spent almost $200,000 — well beyond the $5,000 limit on donations — on ads boosting Dunn’s campaign.

“The Republican Caucus is enjoined” — ordered to stop, Manning wrote in his 15-page ruling.

Harpootlian’s legal team, Joe McCulloch and Chris Kenney, charged the GOP Caucus illegally was spending nearly $200,000 on television ads, online ads and mailers. They argued the caucus is an organization prevented by law from spending more than $5,000 on any candidate and it was far exceeding that limit.

Judge Manning agreed.

“The judge is wrong,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said later Friday. “The judge is wrong constitutionally. The judge is wrong on the statute. I’m confident a higher court will see the wrong.”

Massey, the head of the Senate GOP Caucus, also criticized Manning for waiting until about 5 p.m. Friday to release his decision. That is unfair because it means that Senate Republicans can’t find a court to appeal his decision until Monday. Meanwhile, every day is crucial in the final days of the Nov. 6 campaign.

The timing “is not a good-faith action,” Massey said.

At a hearing earlier this week, Massey testified the GOP Caucus wanted to elect Dunn to add to the Republican majority in the Senate. Massey also testified that, as of Oct. 10, the caucus had more than $800,000 on hand, and it could spend all that money to defeat Harpootlian if it wished.

Massey and Dunn are running in a special election to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of longtime state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland. Courson resigned in June and entered a guilty plea to misconduct in the State House corruption probe.

Harpootlian — a Columbia attorney and former S.C. Democratic Party chair — sued the caucus Oct. 12, alleging it was spending more that $100,000 on ads against his campaign. The caucus money is contributions from big corporations, including SCANA, AT&T and the payday lender Advance America.

The caucus is defined by law as a “legislative caucus committee,” meaning it can’t spend more than $5,000 on a candidate’s campaign, Harpootlian said in his suit.

However, in court, Massey cited a Senate Ethics Committee opinion that says a caucus can raise and spend as much money as it wants on a campaign within 45 days of an election. Massey also contended, under S.C. law, the money spent on the ads was “not a contribution” given directly to Dunn.

Judge Manning disagreed.

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter; John Monk: 803-771-8344, @jmonkatthestate
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