The Buzz

SC GOP funneled secretive money from special interest to Lexington County candidate

A Lexington County Council candidate faces scrutiny after accepting campaign donations from a special interest donor who funneled money through the S.C. Republican Party.

The $5,000 donation to Glen Conwell's District 8 race had the dual effect of initially concealing the donor and increasing the maximum amount the donor was able to give from $1,000 to $5,000.

S.C. Republican Party spokeswoman Hope Walker said the April 18 donation was "not an endorsement at all" from the party and would not say who gave the money. Conwell said the donation was from Lou Wood Kennedy, owner of Nephron Pharmaceuticals, which recently moved its headquarters into the county.

Kennedy, who spoke to The State after this story was originally published, said she has no problem with her name being attached to the donation. She said she thinks the District 8 incumbent, Ned Tolar, has been too negative toward opponents in previous elections, and she supported Conwell because of his tenure on Lexington County School Board District 2, his faith and the fact that he owns a business, Conwell's Meat Market.

"He's just a good guy," Kennedy said of Conwell.

Before donating, Kennedy said she called the Republican Party to ask what was the best way to donate to a candidate, and the party steered her toward donating through the party.

"This is an above-board way to donate to people whom you think will do well for the community," Kennedy said. "I'm happy to go on the record."

Conwell and Kennedy both said they have never met. Conwell did not say why he thought Kennedy donated to his campaign.

Tolar, who is facing challengers Conwell and Charles Crouch in the June 12 primary election, said he has scrutinized tax exemptions such as the one Nephron receives. He thinks Nephron's support of his opponent has something to do with that.

“It’s no surprise that one of the recipients of these exemptions is now funding an opponent against me," Tolar said in an emailed statement. "However, I still believe that complete transparency for tax exemptions is the right thing to do, and I still plan to push for it."

Lexington County gave Nephron a tax break in the form of a fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement in 2012, meeting minutes show.

Tolar blasted Conwell for accepting the donation, saying "I think it violates the ethics laws of South Carolina," Tolar said in an interview. "If Glen has any ... ethics, he'll give it back."

Stephen Spaulding, an attorney and top strategist for government watchdog Common Cause, said he doesn't know whether the practice is legal but "it raises serious questions. We have contribution limits and we have disclosure laws for a reason. If a donor is able to funnel money to a candidate through a political party, that's a problem."

The contribution was a part of a program in which a donor gives money to the Republican Party and the party gives part of that contribution to the donor's preferred candidate, Walker said. She said the practice is legal and a tactic the party has used in the gubernatorial campaigns of Catherine Templeton and Gov. Henry McMaster.

The tactic is less common at the local level, said Craig Caldwell, who chairs the Lexington County Republican Party.

"This is the first time I've seen it from a county level in Lexington County," Caldwell said. "It's more common on statewide candidates."

Walker said all candidates received an email about the program, but Tolar and Crouch said they were not aware they could use this strategy to fund their campaigns.

"I never knew that sort of thing — that you could do that," said Crouch. "But I've never been in public office before."

The State Ethics Commission declined to comment.

A look inside the murky process of campaign contributions and the impact of anonymous donations on the political system.