Monday, February 23, 2009

The Realities of Strict Campaign Finance Law

Today WAYLA reports on local politics from South Carolina.

According to a recent article in The Post and Courier - a Charleston, SC newspaper - lobbyists and elected officials from South Carolina owe the State Ethics Commission over $2.5 million.

Quite a few of them, in fact, owe the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.

How did they manage to run up such a large debt?

The answer is quite simple: they failed to accurately or sufficiently fill out campaign finance reports. This was especially easy for local races in which candidates did not think the law would be so strict for their elections.

One example in the article is a former Town Council member from Jonesville.

"Lucius Rice III, a former Jonesville Town Council member, owes more than $212,000 — and counting.

Rice first ran afoul of the commission when he failed to file a campaign disclosure form for the 2004 election and was fined $100. In 2006, the state hit him with a second fine for failing to file a statement describing his economic interests.

Because Rice has yet to address the original violations, his late penalties grow by $200 per day. The state has been garnishing Rice's employment wages for more than two years to the tune of about $10,000.

Rice said that after his job moved him to Charlotte, he never heard anything more from the state until it began to garnish his wages for what he thought was child support. 'It's ridiculous,' Rice said when The Post and Courier told him of his massive ethics commission fine. 'I served my community on council, and this is what I get? It's sad that they are doing this to someone out there trying to make a living.'

Rice finds it odd that the state couldn't locate him to notify him of the fines but seemed to have no trouble finding his paycheck to garnish his wages.

… Herbert R. Hayden Jr., executive director of the commission … said there's no excuse for failing to file the information. It's easy to do, particularly now that forms can be filled out online. 'It's no more difficult than filling out your checkbook register.'

At the same time, he said the fine totals in Rice's case and others have gotten out of hand. 'So many of those figures are totally unrealistic as far as ever collecting that money.'"

A few years ago, the State Legislature did pass a bill capping penalties at $5,000 but it was vetoed by Governor Mark Sanford.

A particularly harsh example is Richard Johnson, who served on the Eastover City Council from 2000 to 2006. He owes the state more than $430,000. Yet his only expenditure was a $50 registration fee for being placed on the ballot. As he told The Post and Courier, "I didn't have no campaign fund [sic]. This is a small town." Eastover has a population of 830 and a municipal budget of only $600,000.

Campaign finance law exists for a good reason - to stop the influence of special interests and the super-wealthy from essentially buying a government. But in practice there can be serious consequences for those who wouldn’t otherwise expect it.

Hopefully this knowledge of legal backlash should serve as a warning to prospective candidates and sitting elected officials: no matter what your office is, you must take campaign finance laws seriously.

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