On the campaign trail, newly elected Lt. Gov. Ken Ard was one of the many candidates who claimed he'd entered politics as an angry business owner and taxpayer. "I saw a genuine lack of business acumen in the process," he told the City Paper at the time. With reports that Ard has used his campaign account for expensive trips, meals, and more in the months since the election, obviously it's political acumen that is lacking in the Ard camp.
Last week, Columbia alt-weekly the Free Times broke the news that the State Ethics Commission was suspicious of the nearly $25,000 Ard has spent since Election Day, including $800 at a women's boutique and big expenses for trips to Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
Take a look at the food bill, for example. In the weeks leading up to the election, Ard was keeping it cheap on the campaign trail: $12 at an Applebee's in Hartsville, $16 at a Greenville pizza place, $30 at a Florence Chili's, $11 at a Chick-Fil-A. That's a total of $69 filed in the last month on the campaign trail. Compare that to the bills in December, a full month after the election: $129 for two meals at Blue Marlin in Columbia, more than $200 for three meals at Florence's Red Bone Alley, $239 for three meals at Hampton Street Vineyards in Columbia, $200 at Victor's Bistro in Florence. Then there was the holiday in D.C., with a $204 meal at Filomena Ristorante and another $123 at the DuPont Hotel.
State law prohibits candidates or elected officials from using campaign cash for personal expenses makes exceptions for a business lunch or dinner on the campaign trail. That said, even exceptions have their limit.
"It seems like the man can't eat a meal without putting it on his campaign account," State Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood told the Free Times last week. Ard has until Tues. Feb. 15 to offer explanations for the spending spree.
Let us hope that his response is more artful than his answer to questions from the Free Times. "I'll be honest, I'm not really good at dotting i's and crossing t's, but I've got a lot — a lot — of money in here and I'm certainly not spending any money on my own personal behalf," he said. "I've got a vast amount of my personal wealth tied up in this campaign, and I'm just trying to recoup as much of that as I can." The lieutenant governor claimed he was misquoted, but the Free Times released audio of the conversation on Monday.
It's clear that Ard doesn't have a solid grasp on state ethics requirements. News outlets went on to report that Ard was fined $45,700 for missing deadlines for campaign disclosures and economic interest statements in 2006 as a member of the Florence County Council. The fee was eventually reduced to $1,100. Apparently, he didn't learn his lesson. Ethics regulators told the Associated Press last week that Ard didn't file campaign disclosures laying out contributions and expenditures for his 2008 county council re-election.
For most of this mess, Ard will likely claim ignorance. Frankly, he's not alone. Municipal candidates across the state are likely racking up ethics fines and spending violations, because they don't understand the law. Others who game the system know campaign supplies are hard to find at a women's boutique.
We did a story roughly a year ago about local politicians hiring expensive campaign consultants. They helped develop professional operations and took care of navigating things like state ethics requirements. These often-confusing jobs are usually left to the candidate and his/her family and close supporters. City Councilman Blake Hallman said the consultants allowed him "to go out and do what I was most effective at doing — sharing my vision with voters."
I'm sure Ard had help with the details on the campaign trail, but it's clear what he needed was a little help with what to do after you win.