The S.C. Ethics Commission refused Wednesday to dismiss allegations that Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster accepted $72,700 improper contributions from 51 donors to pay off debt during his bid for governor in 2010.
McMaster will try to settle the ethics allegations against him before his Ethics Commission hearing on Oct. 21, his attorney Butch Bowers said.
That resolution could include McMaster reopening his campaign account and raising money to pay back the contributions.
“He unintentionally violated the excessive contributions statute by raising money from contributors who had previously donated to his campaign to satisfy that debt,” Bowers said.
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Bowers asked the commission to dismiss the complaint and issue an advisory opinion clarifying the law.
Bowers also said that the misunderstanding was based on a reliance of an advisory opinion from the ethics commission from 1992 that said it was OK to raise money to retire debt for an election in 1990.
But in 1990, the state had no campaign contribution limits. The limits were put in place that capped contributions to statewide office elections at $3,500.
Ethics Commission attorney Michael Burchstead requested the commission keep the scheduled hearing.
“What Mr. Bowers is asking us to do is something that would go against the longstanding practice of how to resolve a case,” Burchstead said.
Bowers suggested McMaster could repay donors for their excess contributions and re-open the campaign account to collect money from new contributors.
The commission needed to hold McMaster, a veteran of several statewide races, to the same standards as people who have never run for office or haven’t in 25 years when they make errors in campaign filings, Burchstead said.
To treat McMaster any different would be troubling to precedent, he said, adding, “We don’t think he intentionally skirted the law at all.”
McMaster — a former U.S. attorney, two-term state attorney general and state party chairman — was elected lieutenant governor in 2014.
South Carolina’s last elected lieutenant governor, Ken Ard, resigned from office in 2012 after he pleaded guilty to using campaign money to buy personal items. Two state senators took turns completing Ard’s term.