Cindi Ross Scoppe

New case, same lesson: We need random ethics audits

The ethics case against thenn-Sen Ray Cleary, shown here in a peach jacket, was all too familiar.
The ethics case against thenn-Sen Ray Cleary, shown here in a peach jacket, was all too familiar.

PERHAPS IT was the October 2014 report that first raised eyebrows. It showed that of the eight expenditures on Sen. Ray Cleary’s campaign disclosure report for the previous three months, six were to the senator himself:

▪ July 14, for $328 — “eggs up-pop $28, ale house county $58, drunken jacks fireman $197, eggs up cog $21, lincoln park judd-flags $24.”

▪ July 26, for $485.51 — “to chas 148 mi municipal assoc. lunch $67, hilton $207.47, harpers-col $86.62, to columbia $124.42.”

▪ July 28, for $315.32 — “ale house-donald smith-mental health $24.89, state house pr $241.23, miles 221 $49.20.”

▪ Aug. 14, for $596.70 — “columbia gas-$124.42, e visa $185.28, south carolina dia/air insurance $287.00.”

▪ Aug. 20, for $868.36 — “bistro-railroad $42.25, gerson hospital assoc. con 25.98, ce-so car dialogue found $800.13.”

▪ Sept. 29, $317.85 — “zorba-op ed-ks $30.22, monteray-col. $31.88-murrells inlet fire dist. vote, mental health-columbia-marriott-mileage $228, carolina cafe-kellie murrells inlet op ed $27.28.”

The case against Sen Cleary Senators reprimand Cleary, order him to pay nearly $125,000

State law requires a lot more detail than that when legislators spend the money that was given to them by people who probably want to influence their votes. Details that show, for instance, that the expenditures are actually related to running for or holding office, and not to cover personal expenses.

So at some point, the Senate Ethics Committee asked the Georgetown Republican for those details. At some point, the committee asked for documentation — restaurant receipts, for example, or mileage logs, or acknowledgments of the charitable contributions. At some point, Mr. Cleary wouldn’t or couldn’t provide details or documentation, and the committee asked to look at his campaign bank statements.

And oh what those statements revealed, beyond $6,950.16 the committee had already spotted in “inappropriate reimbursements to himself.”

The bank statements for 2013, 2014 and 2015 revealed four more checks written to Mr. Cleary that he had not included on his campaign disclosure reports. Another unreported check went to his credit card company, another to Costco. Total unreported reimbursements to himself: $9,241.77. Three additional payments to Mr. Cleary’s credit card companies had not been reported, worth $4,818.95.

The committee also found $13,120 in unreported donations to his campaign.

Last month, the committee ordered Mr. Cleary to pay $41,900 in fines and $27,415 to cover the panel’s cost of hiring a forensic accountant and attorney, to reimburse his campaign fund $47,831.85 and to give $7,500 to the Children’s Trust Fund for reasons too convoluted and unimportant to explain. Mr. Cleary, who did not seek re-election this year, had already accepted the committee’s conclusions.

A $120,000 hit seems excessive if you listen to Mr. Cleary, who insists he never converted any campaign funds to personal use.

Perhaps he didn’t, but he couldn’t provide documentation to prove he spent the money legally — as state law requires. And frankly, the details in this case smell a lot like the case of then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell: a legislator reimbursing himself for what he said were official expenses, but providing vague explanations and no documentation.

It turned out that Mr. Harrell was making up expenditures to cover for taking money out of his campaign account and putting it into his personal bank account. That’s why he was convicted in criminal court and lost his office.

For all of the Senate’s resistance to letting the State Ethics Commission investigate legislators and making those investigations public — both changes are set to begin next year — the Senate Ethics Committee has developed an impressive track record of spotting and prosecuting campaign-finance violations.

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I’m not talking about obvious violations: donations from lobbyists, or over the limit. This marks the sixth time in six years that the committee has spotted red flags, asked questions, asked for documentation, gone through the tedious process of matching up lines on campaign finance reports with bank and credit card statements — and found that they don’t match.

Unfortunately, this usually happens because the violator asks a question or tells the committee something that makes it clear he was violating the law. Otherwise, the violations might have gone undetected.

In April, the Senate Ethics Committee started requiring senators to turn in copies of their campaign bank statements along with their disclosure reports. That means that when a staffer sees something that looks strange on a campaign report, he can immediately check it against the bank records. And there’s every reason to believe this will make senators more careful about what they report — and what they do.

That is extremely good, because it really doesn’t matter who decides whether legislators are guilty or innocent of charges brought against them if no one spots the violations and brings charges.

Unfortunately, this is just a committee rule, which the committee could rescind with a snap of its fingers.

That’s not good enough.

Either this requirement or something like it — the House committee requires representatives to provide bank statements when they are selected for a random audit — needs to be written into state law, where it applies not just to the Senate or the House but to both, and to state and local officials, and where it can’t be repealed without the approval, in a very public way, of the full House, the full Senate and the governor.

And that needs to happen before we have another case like Sen. Cleary’s.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com, follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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