COLUMBIA — A state senator who was fined nearly $5,400 for accepting donations above the legal limit said Tuesday it was an unintentional mistake and he’s moving on. But his case could come up in next year’s ethics reform debate.
The Senate Ethics Committee ordered Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, to pay $5,390 for 15 campaign contributions that exceeded the $1,000 maximum that candidates can receive from someone per election. That’s the largest penalty ever imposed by the legislative ethics panel, which, until January 2011, could fine only for late campaign spending reports.
Under state law, the Senate ethics panel handles violations by its members. Williams’ fine represents the second non-technical fine it has imposed since senators changed their rules. The first, a $950 fine for an unacceptable loan, was paid in May.
In Williams’ case, he also was ordered to return $7,801 to donors and pay down $5,000 of debt from a previous campaign, to follow through on what he’d reported on quarterly filings. State law allows candidates to accept up to an additional $1,000 from someone if the excess goes toward debt. Williams reported that he transferred an excess $5,000 to his bank to retire debt, but banking records later showed the loan repayments were never made.
The committee quietly issued its public reprimand late last month. It found that the two non-payments reported in June 2009 and August 2010 were “deliberate attempts to mislead the public,” enabling Williams to use the entire amount in his current campaign.
But Williams disagreed with that finding Tuesday.
“If that was the case, I wouldn’t have reported it. I wasn’t trying to hide anything. It was an oversight,” Williams said. “I made a mistake. When it was called to my attention, I corrected it.”
Williams received the maximum fine of $2,000 per violation for the two reported loan repayments. He was fined an additional $1,390 for 10 donations that exceeded the $1,000 limit.
Williams, a deputy county administrator, is unopposed next month in his bid for a third term representing portions of the Pee Dee region. He defeated a primary challenger.
Senators changed their rules several months after the committee publicly reprimanded Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, for excess contributions and sloppy record keeping over the past decade. He had to return money to donors, but the panel had no ability to assess penalties.
Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, was the first senator penalized earlier this year, for borrowing $20,000 from someone for his 2008 election. State law allows only loans from banks, so it was considered a $19,000-over-the-limit donation. In its verdict, the committee notes the freshman senator received prior approval from staff and has since paid it back. He was not publicly reprimanded.
The House Ethics Committee similarly changed its rules earlier this year. It has yet to issue a non-technical fine.
Senate Ethics Chairman Wes Hayes said the hope is that such fines discourage others from breaking the law.
Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said many violations probably go undetected – an issue he hopes to address as part of next year’s ethics reform debate. While Senate staff reviews all Senate campaign spending reports, staff has to rely on what’s reported.
“If what they’re saying in reports isn’t accurate, it’s difficult for us to find out, unless someone files a complaint,” or something raises suspicion, Hayes said Tuesday.
Hayes is among senators working on that chambers’ ethics reform plan. He expects public hearings to be held across the state after the election.
Beyond reforming the law, he said, he’ll push for more money to investigate and prosecute ethics cases, adding that laws aren’t much use if the state lacks the ability to make sure they’re followed.
On Monday, the state GOP accused Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, of taking $9,500 in donations above the per-person limit. Vick is seeking a fifth term in the state House after dropping out of the race for the new 7th congressional district following an arrest in Columbia late May.
Vick, who faces a Republican and petition candidate next month, accused the GOP of trying to make an issue out of nothing. He says he received permission from the 10 donors – including himself and his wife – to transfer money from his primary race to the general election. Vick’s primary challenger was booted from the ballot over misfiled paperwork.