The S.C. Ethics Commission ordered Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster on Wednesday to repay $72,700 in excess campaign contributions from his 2010 run for governor and pay a $5,100 fine.
The commission found McMaster, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general, accepted 51 contributions in excess of the $3,500 limit in state law.
McMaster also received a public warning. He is allowed to reactivate his 2010 governor's campaign account and accept contributions to repay donors for their excessive donations.
The lieutenant governor admitted he "inadvertently" violated campaign contribution laws in the order. The commission called the violations “unintentional” and found no evidence that the excess contributions were misspent.
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“This suits me just fine. We want to comply with the law and make sure everything is done above board,” McMaster told The State on Wednesday. “That’s what I have always tried to do. This order confirms is that what we’re trying to do, but that we were wrong in our understanding of the law. So we’ll fix that now.”
McMaster's campaign accepted the excess contributions as part of a "general election" fund to retire his debt from the 2010 race. But McMaster lost in the Republican primary eventually won by then-state Rep. Nikki Haley, of Lexington.
McMaster could not exceed the $3,500 contribution limits for the one election in which he ran – the primary.
An attorney for McMaster cited a 1992 Ethics Commission opinion, requested by McMaster after his previous run for lieutenant governor in 1990, that suggested active campaign accounts and campaign-debt retirement accounts can be treated separately. But no campaign contribution limits were in place at that time.
“We all thought then it was OK to do it that it was considered a separate cycle that we could raise that money again,” McMaster said. “It turned out that wasn’t right.”
McMaster said he plans to reactivate the campaign account soon. He does not have plans to ask for a contribution for 2016 GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who McMaster endorsed ahead of the S.C. primary last month.
“I think he may some money left over after he finishes funding his own campaign,” McMaster joked. “I hope that at people will be willing to help.”
Nearly half of the $149,500 raised by McMaster’s campaign after the 2010 primary came from donors who exceeded state contribution limits.
According to the commission charges, those making improper contributions included: payday lenders Cash America and Ace Cash Express; McCall Farms; rail operator Norfolk Southern; and the late Camden attorney John Rainey, who has been a Haley antagonist.
In addition to his work as a top legal official, McMaster and another former state attorney general, Travis Medlock, co-chaired an ethics reform task force appointed by Haley in 2013.
McMaster is now the second consecutive S.C. attorney general to have run into campaign finance problems during the 2010 election. The current attorney general, Alan Wilson, refunded $42,500 in excess 2010 contributions after reviewing his campaign filings last year.
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.
The complaint against McMaster was filed with the Ethics Commission in 2014 by David Ellison, a Greenville financial adviser, about two weeks after the article about McMaster’s improper gubernatorial contributions appeared in The State.