COLUMBIA — South Carolina's lieutenant governor improperly used thousands of dollars in campaign donations for things such as restaurant meals, a family vacation to Washington, computer equipment and a gown for his wife, state ethics investigators alleged Friday.
In all, Lt. Gov. Ken Ard faces 106 civil charges claiming that he spent campaign money for personal purchases and filed incorrect campaign reports. He faces potential fines of more than $200,000.
The Republican's spending has been under scrutiny since shortly after he took office in January. But a full picture of the official charges was not revealed until Friday, when State Ethics Commission staff released documents that outlined their allegations.
The documents describe someone who appears to have spent freely with money donated to his campaign once he won his election. They allege he used the funds to pay for hundreds of dollars in gasoline, rooms in posh hotels around the state, lavish meals at high-end restaurants and small charges at fast-food joints.
The full commission has yet to act on the civil charges.
Ard, a former Florence County councilman, has said that he would cooperate with the commission. He declined to comment Friday through a spokeswoman, who referred to a statement he released Wednesday, hours after the charges were announced.
"As I've said from the beginning, if I've made any mistakes or errors, I will take full responsibility for them, correct them and move forward," Ard said earlier in the week.
South Carolina elects lieutenant governors separately from its governors for a part-time job that pays $46,545 yearly. Ard's responsibilities include presiding over the state Senate and overseeing the state's Office on Aging.
The councilman was largely unknown outside his home county when he entered the race for lieutenant governor. The 47-year-old married father of three won a four-way primary and defeated a former staffer of former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings' by touting himself as the plain-spoken guy next door and the only candidate in the race who wasn't a lawyer.
He put $185,000 of his own money into last year's race and borrowed $300,000, winning in November with 55 percent of the vote.
Each civil charge carries a $2,000 penalty. The commission's documents show Ard is charged with 83 counts of converting campaign funds for personal use and 23 counts of failing to disclose campaign expenditures. The commission earlier in the week announced 92 charges but upped its tally on Friday.
The allegations of misspending include:
a $722 tab for staying at the Courtyard Marriott in Columbia days after his election, and a $578 bill Nov. 29 for staying at the Renaissance Hotel in Charleston;
$1,267 for plane tickets for his family's vacation to Washington in December, as well as $721 for the hotel there, meals and a car service in the city;
$799 for his wife's inaugural gown - bought at Cynthia's in Florence, $561 on clothing at Half Moon Outfitters in Columbia and $314 for women's clothing at Talbots in Columbia.
$279 for a hotel in Atlanta during the SEC championship game, and the $168 he paid for the football tickets.
The largest single amount was $3,056 for computer equipment at Best Buy in Florence. The smallest was $1.67 for food at the Breakers in Myrtle Beach.
Ard's most frequently questioned expenditures were meals: 45 items with a combined tab of $2,027. The ethics charges cite 10 hotel stays costing $2,873 and three clothing store expenses for $1,697.
The Columbia Free Times was first to raise questions about Ard's spending. He told a reporter for the weekly newspaper, "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. ... 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."
Democratic Party executive director Jay Parmley said the scope and nature of the accusations should move the charges against Ard beyond the civil investigation.
"If this doesn't border on criminal, I don't know what will," he said.
A spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, said he is aware of Ard's case. The spokesman said it would be up to the ethics commission to refer the matter for potential criminal prosecution.
State Republican Party executive director Joel Sawyer said Ard is doing what he should.
"We think the lieutenant governor has been completely forthcoming throughout this process," Sawyer said. "As he said from the beginning, if mistakes were made, he is going to work to correct them."
Sawyer said Ard has told people he wasn't familiar with the regulatory process of running a statewide campaign.
But Parmley said Ard's charges reflect more than mistakes.
"It isn't a one-time 'I forgot.' This is, 'I don't care,'" Parmley said. "I'm a little shocked that he was that ignorant - or that blatant."
The Ethics Commission also has been reviewing the Republican's old county council campaign records. Last month, it cited Ard for late, incomplete and missing campaign reports from those campaigns.
The commission's review of Ard's campaign finances represents at least the second time in two years that one of the state's highest office holders has faced an ethics inquiry. Investigations by The Associated Press and other media into former Gov. Mark Sanford's travel and campaign practices after he acknowledged an affair with an Argentine woman in 2009 prompted an inquiry and charges that brought a $74,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history.