The Buzz

Lottery commissioner resigned over illegal campaign donations, audit finds

A member of the state’s lottery commission resigned last year after state auditors found he had illegally donated to State House elections.

Harry “Buck” Limehouse Jr., a Charleston real estate developer and former S.C. Department of Transportation executive director, donated $950 to candidates for the S.C. House of Representatives between 2015 and 2018, when he served on the lottery commission, according to a recent report from the Legislative Audit Council.

Members of the state lottery commission board are not allowed to donate to State House candidates, political action committees or candidates for a statewide constitutional office, according to state law.

Limehouse said he was not aware of that restriction when he made the donations.

“I had no idea I was violating the ethics law,” Limehouse said. “Whether you do it out of ignorance of not, the law is the law.”

The lottery commission told auditors, in response to the report, that it tells all of its commissioners about the campaign finance rules when they begin the job.

Whether he knew or not, S.C. state ethics watchdog John Crangle said that is no excuse.

“Ignorance of the law is not an excuse,” Crangle said. “It’s his job to know. He’s a public official.”

His donations included $500 to Robert Harrell III, $350 to Linda Bennett and $100 to Mark Willis, all of whom were candidates for the S.C. House of Representatives.

Limehouse said he made the political donations because his son is friends with Bennett and Harrell is a family friend.

Two other lottery commissioners were also caught donating to a political action committee, but have kept their jobs, according to a report by the S.C. Legislative Audit Council.

Those two were Hamilton “Bo” Russell, a Greenville-based attorney at Nelson Mullins, and Mickey Renner, a former senior vice president at Wells Fargo.

Since Russell took office in 2016, he has given $1,488 to Nelson Mullins’ political action committee, according to state ethics records and the audit. Renner gave $100 to the S.C. Bankers Association State Political Action Committee.

Russell was enrolled in a system at Nelson Mullins where a portion of his paycheck was withheld and donated to the company’s political action committee, he said. Once Russell found out he wasn’t allowed to make the donations, the committee refunded his donations and he gave the money to charity, he said.

He downplayed his connection to the money, saying that since he did not control which candidate the money was given to, his situation was different.

“I did not make any political donations,” Russell said of his time as a lottery commissioner.

Crangle isn’t buying it.

“That’s immaterial...he gave to a PAC and the PAC gave to candidates for state office,” Crangle said. “It’s just pure smoke.”

Since Russell and Renner’s donations were not given directly to a candidate, the lottery commission argues they are different, according to a letter the commission wrote to auditors.

“The report indicates that three Commissioners made political contributions to candidates for the General Assembly. This statement is disingenuous. Only one Commissioner made a contribution directly to a candidate and he resigned,” according to the letter, which was signed by lottery Executive Director Hogan Brown. “The other two members had monies deducted from their salaries by their employers for contributions to political action committees (PAC), never contributing directly to a candidate nor having any decision making role in the respective PAC. Both of these members have been reimbursed by the committees.”

Crangle wasn’t convinced returning the money made much of a difference.

“That’s like robbing a bank and returning the money the next day,” Crangle said.

State law says any lottery commission member who makes a statewide campaign donation while in office “must be summarily dismissed.”

Only the governor can remove one of the lottery commissioners from office. The State has reached out to Gov. Henry McMaster’s office.

The law does not make distinctions between direct and indirect campaign donations.

The nine-member board is chosen by top State House officials. Three are appointed by the governor; three are appointed by the president pro tempore of the Senate, who is Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and three are appointed by the S.C. speaker of the house, who is Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, state law says.

The State was unable to reach Renner for comment.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that Mickey Renner was a former senior vice president at Wells Fargo.