COLUMBIA — The House Ethics Committee decided Wednesday that it needs to further review allegations that Spartanburg Rep. Harold Mitchell misused campaign funds.
The 10-member panel voted unanimously to proceed with an investigation of the 47-year-old Democrat, who took the rare step last summer of asking his ethics case to be public. Otherwise, all documents and proceedings prior to the probable cause finding would have been secret and Wednesday's hearing behind closed doors.
“There was nothing to hide,” said Mitchell, first elected in 2005.
The ethics committee will either hold a formal hearing on the complaint or issue an opinion. Its options include dismissing the case, reprimanding Mitchell, or expelling him.
Prosecutors filed the complaint while reviewing Mitchell's criminal case. Mitchell turned himself in on tax evasion charges in September 2011. He pleaded guilty last November to misdemeanor charges of not filing his 2007 and 2008 returns on time.
In the ethics case, Mitchell is accused of using his campaign account for personal benefit.
His attorney, Bruce Byrholdt, said Mitchell is guilty only of sloppy accounting and helping a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Mitchell's nonprofit, Regenesis Economic Development Organization, lacked a comptroller to properly account for the money, Byrholdt said.
“At no time do I think there was a conscious attempt to violate campaign accounting laws,” he said.
Mitchell said campaign money funded a family's stay in a Spartanburg hotel from November 2008 through January 2009, after church members made him aware of their plight. But Mitchell said he didn't personally benefit, especially since they weren't constituents or related to him.
“Was it a violation? Probably,” Byrholdt told committee members. “Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely.”
Other allegations involve checks written out to cash.
Mitchell said that's how he paid the instructor of Regenesis' construction trade class and provided cash stipends to participants from two homeless shelters. Paying them by check wasn't an option, he said.
“Was that good business practice? No, it was horrible,” Byrholdt said. “Had there been an accounting system, none of this would've come up.”
Mitchell said he sponsored the class after the city pulled its funding, because it was his idea, in his district. He contends state law allowed his campaign to pay for that sponsorship, as a contribution to a charity.
Mitchell says other withdrawals for suspected personal expenses were actually spent on campaign needs, such as dry cleaning, gasoline for himself and his wife, a cellphone, van rental and a consulting firm.
The gas reimbursements to his wife, he explained Wednesday, covered her costs for picking up people and taking them to the polls for his contested 2008 primary.
Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, asked Mitchell why he didn't write checks directly for expenses such as the van rental.
“At the time, I was short on checks,” Mitchell said.
The legislative panel won't consider anything that occurred before July 2008. Details of prior transactions have been redacted from the record. State law sets a four-year statute of limitations on ethics violations.
Mitchell's case represented the first public hearing by the revamped ethics panel.
The House voted in December, during an organizational session, to add four spots on the committee and give an equal number to Democrats and Republicans. House leaders in both parties praised the move as a first step in ethics reform.
That decision followed voter backlash over the committee's handling last year of the ethics case against Gov. Nikki Haley, which involved allegations she lobbied for two former employers while a House member. That Republican-led committee twice cleared Haley of all charges.
The first time, members voted to find probable cause – allowing the panel, for the first time, to even acknowledge the case existed – then immediately voted to dismiss. Those back-to-back votes prompted complaints of a sham process. The second clearing followed a formal hearing.
Critics contend legislators shouldn't be in charge of handling complaints against their own members.
Legislators are expected this year to consider proposals that would remove that authority and send complaints to the state Ethics Commission, which currently oversees ethics matters for all public officials other than House and Senate members.
Last week, Attorney General Alan Wilson forwarded an ethics complaint against House Speaker Bobby Harrell to state law enforcement for review. His move essentially agreed with the filer, Ashley Landess of the state Policy Council, that there are conflicts of interest over the House Ethics Committee investigating the chamber's top officer.