Friday, March 7, 2014

Ethics regulators question lobbyist’s campaign contribution to S.C. attorney general

Another letter in the mail

Posted by Corey Hutchins on Fri, Mar 7, 2014 at 11:05 AM

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South Carolina ethics regulators want to know how money from a lobbyist ended up in the campaign account of Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson. Lobbyists aren’t allowed to give money to lawmakers or statewide public officials.

The contributions in question, made five years ago, came from Joyce Hearn, who was a lobbyist for the South Carolina Credit Union League during years when she gave a total of $200 to Wilson. The money came from a $150 donation on Nov. 13, 2009 and a $50 donation on March 11, 2010. Hearn had de-registered as a lobbyist on May 30, 2010, but that doesn’t matter, says the State Ethics Commission’s deputy director and attorney Cathy Hazelwood. Even if a lobbyist de-registers in South Carolina, he or she cannot give direct campaign contributions to a lawmaker or statewide candidate during the year they lobbied. Hearn had registered as a lobbyist in January of 2009 and 2010, meaning she couldn’t give money to any candidate that year.

Hazelwood says the ethics agency has sent a letter to both of them about the matter.

“The letter is going to ask for a refund from Wilson to Hearn,” and an explanation from the then-lobbyist, she says. At this point, that’s the process the ethics agency will go through, Hazelwood says. But that could change if someone were to file a formal complaint with the agency. If that happens the Ethics Commission will go through the complaint process, which could include formal investigation.

At this point, Hazewood says, “We’re going to put both of them on notice.”

Wilson didn't respond to a message, but his senior campaign spokesman Richard Quinn issued a statement. 

"Mrs. Hearn had informed us that she was no longer registered as a lobbyist but she had in fact not waited through the one calendar year cooling off period and even re-registered at a later date," Quinn said. "Her $200 in contributions will be returned.
Our campaign will continue to be transparent to the public regarding all campaign activity and will remain vigilant to comply with all ethics laws."

Last year Wilson's campaign hired a forensic accountant to review his ethics reports after it was revealed he'd failed to report $134,000 in campaign donations and payments. Because he self-reported what his campaign called “simple clerical or scrivener’s errors” to the ethics agency, he paid no fines .

As for Hearn, who is no longer a lobbyist, she says she didn’t know she wasn’t allowed to give campaign money to a statewide candidate during a year she lobbied the Legislature.

“It was a mistake on my part,” she says. Hearn says she’s known the Wilson family for a long time, and remembers back when she was a campaign manager in 1970s for former U.S. Congressman Floyd Spence a young Alan Wilson used to come in and help stuff envelopes. Now he’s the attorney general and his father, Joe Wilson, holds Spence’s seat in Congress.

“I should probably be more conversant with those ethics rules,” Hearn says, and joked that if she’s going to get some money back from Wilson it would be something of a "ridiculous" surprise.

At the Statehouse, lawmakers are currently debating an ethics reform bill, but Hazelwood says so far she hasn’t seen or heard any new proposal that might affect this particular issue.

The matter, however, highlights how easy it is for potentially improper campaign funds to slip under the watchful eye of an agency tasked with bird-dogging the ethics reports of statewide officeholders. For instance, there’s no way for the State Ethics Commission’s electronic database to automatically catch whether a lobbyist improperly donated to a campaign. Hazelwood says it would likely take quite a technological undertaking to create a system that could create such a system and would probably require additional state resources.

Asked whether she thought such resources are worth it to catch potentially improper campaign finance issues, she said, “You’d have to ask the General Assembly about that.”

John Crangle, who directs the state chapter of Common Cause and has advocated for stricter ethics rules, says the issue underscores how the Legislature has neglected the State Ethics Commission by cutting its budget for several years. And he says in cases like these just refunding the contribution isn’t enough.

“You can’t cure the problem by giving the money back,” Crangle says. “They did the criminal act. In my view, if you take the illegal contribution and you put it in your campaign account and later on you cut a refund check you still violated the law. Each candidate should have a mechanism in place to monitor the total contribution of every source.”

This post has been updated. 

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