In her column Sunday, Cindi Scoppe reported on the SC Senate Ethics Committee’s second public reprimand (the one of Jake Knotts was the first), and “its first-ever serious fine:”
A forgiving law isn’t precisely the problem in the case of Sen. Kent Williams, but his public reprimand points to another significant shortcoming in our ethics and campaign finance law that isn’t getting much attention. Left uncorrected, it could greatly diminish the value of any new reporting requirements the Legislature passes, leaving them dependent on the honesty of the candidates filing the reports.
According to the Senate Ethics Committee, Mr. Williams accepted 15 contributions in excess of the legal maximum of $1,000 for this year’s election. It ordered him to return the extra $12,801 and pay a $5,390.05 fine. The Marion County Democrat, who is running unopposed for his third term, did not contest the charges.
Ten of the illegal contributions were straightforward violations that anyone who looked closely at his campaign reports would have noticed, and probably the result of bad record keeping. But in five cases, Mr. Williams reported that he received two $1,000 checks on the same day from the same donors — one for the 2012 race and one to pay down a 2008 campaign debt — but used all the money for his 2012 campaign. The panel called these “deliberate attempts to mislead the public,” noting that to anyone looking at those reports, “it appears” that the donations were legal.
It’s Mr. Williams’ apparent compliance with the law that makes this case so worrisome. The Ethics Committee discovered the ruse because its attorney noticed that the senator wasn’t reporting enough outstanding debt to justify the repayments; he asked for bank records, which showed the payments hadn’t been made.
It was similar serendipity that led to the reprimand against Mr. Knotts for accepting illegally large donations, misreporting the identities of some donors and not reporting others, and not reporting some expenditures. In that case, it was what appeared to be, but wasn’t, excessive interest income that raised the attorney’s suspicions, leading him to ask for the bank records that revealed unrelated violations…
Cindi suggests random audits to overcome the weakness that the Williams case exposed — that weakness being the assumption that what is put on disclosures is accurate.