August 10, 2014

In SC, Democratic challengers question GOP incumbents’ ethics

S.C. Democratic candidates for secretary of state and comptroller general are lobbing questions about the ethics of Republican incumbents.

The Democratic candidates for secretary of state and comptroller general are lobbing questions about the ethics of the Republican incumbents they are challenging in November.

But the Democrats’ claims may not stick in the minds of voters in South Carolina, where every statewide office is held by a Republican. S.C. voters also have a record of re-electing candidates touched by ethics allegations.

Democrat Kyle Herbert of Columbia points to ethics allegations that have been raised – and dropped – against Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom concerning the Lexington Republican’s use of campaign money to attend the 2014 national GOP convention, where his girlfriend was an alternate delegate.

Meanwhile, Charleston businesswoman Ginny Deerin says Republican Secretary of State Mark Hammond should not use a state car, paid for by taxpayers, to commute to Columbia from his home in Spartanburg.

Eckstrom says the ethics charges against him – that he used $1,642 in campaign money to attend the GOP convention in Tampa, a trip one state official called nothing more than a vacation – were “politically motivated.”

Hammond says there is nothing wrong with his use of a state-owned car, adding he pays taxes annually for that use.

Both Deerin and Herbert, who have not held political office before, are facing an uphill battle to oust the two GOP incumbents, who have held their positions for more than a decade and each make $92,000 a year.

Part of the problem, says Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan, is that voters have little interest in the “down-ticket” races that fill lesser-known statewide offices, positions many – including three of the candidates – think should be appointed, not elected.

‘Just politically motivated’

Herbert says he wants to restore trust and accountability to the office of comptroller general, the state’s top accountant.

As evidence that trust is lacking, Herbert points, most recently, to ethics charges Eckstrom faced in November, when the S.C. Ethics Commission found probable cause that Eckstrom violated state ethics laws when he spent $1,642 from his campaign account to attend the GOP’s 2012 national convention.

Eckstrom had no official duties at the convention. Previously, he had attended several GOP conventions in an official capacity, subsequently reimbursing himself from his campaign account, as is permitted under state law.

In a March hearing before the Ethics Commission, Eckstrom’s attorney argued the 2012 trip was no different. Eckstrom – though not a delegate – still was conducting political business, both as an S.C. official and a likely GOP candidate for future political office, Eckstrom’s attorney said.

Subsequently, the commission voted 4-2 to dismiss the charges.

Herbert, who works as a certified public accountant for Palmetto Health and teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina, said the accounting profession demands ethical behavior and integrity.

“I’m very, very skilled in trust and accountability,” Herbert said. “Ethical issues will not happen because of my experience in the accounting field.”

Eckstrom said he is subjected to unfounded accusations simply because he is a public official, which Herbert isn’t.

“Many allegations are just politically motivated,” Eckstrom said. “Private citizens wouldn’t have to face that risk.”

Missed deadlines

Herbert also criticizes Eckstrom for filing the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report late, potentially jeopardizing the state’s credit rating.

Typically, that report – a 250-page document that compiles information from every state agency for the state’s fiscal year that ends June 30 – is filed by Dec. 31 each year, Eckstrom said.

But, in 2012, Eckstrom’s office missed that filing date because, the Lexington Republican says, the state was switching to a new accounting system. The report finally came out in June 2013.

“It was really a blow to my pride to see us not get the report out as fast as we had the year before,” Eckstrom said.

Some fretted the late report could affect the state’s credit rating and borrowing costs. But Eckstrom said his agency talked with the credit-rating agencies and kept them informed on the report’s progress.

In any event, the Dec. 31 date is not a hard deadline, Eckstrom said. Instead, it is a date set by the Government Finance Officers Association to have the reports in so they can compete for an award from the association.

The office received extensions and, eventually, the late report received a top award, Eckstrom said.

In 2013, the comptroller’s office missed the deadline again. However, that year’s report came out in February, a four-month improvement from the year prior.

“This year, we’re sure hoping we’ve worked through the bugs,” Eckstrom said.

‘Wrong to have taxpayers pay'

In the secretary of state’s race, Democrat Deerin is trying to take Republican Hammond to task for his use of a state and his work ethic.

In a web advertisement released last week, Deerin and family members talk about Hammond’s commute to his Columbia office from his Spartanburg home.

The ad claims Hammond only goes to his Columbia office two days a week. Hammond disputes that, saying he is in Columbia at least four days a week.

“If I’m not in the office, it’s because I have a speaking engagement,” Hammond said. He said, for example, he attends notary seminars across the state.

When Hammond travels to Columbia for work, he commutes about 180 miles round trip from Spartanburg in a state-owned car. While legal, Deerin says that use of a state vehicle is just wrong.

“Not only are we supplying the car, we’re buying the gas, and we’re paying for the additional maintenance on that car,” Deerin said. “It’s wrong to have taxpayers pay for something that is about his personal desire” to live in Spartanburg, rather than relocate to Columbia.

Hammond said he reports his use of the state car on his income taxes, paying taxes on the value.

If elected, Deerin says she will rent a room in Columbia, rather than commute from Charleston.

But Hammond says he sees value in having South Carolinians who live outside the Midlands serve in state office.

“It represents our state well when we have individuals from all four corners of the state because they bring different perspectives to Columbia,” he said.

Regulations, online services

If elected, Deerin says she would focus on cutting the budget for the secretary of state office, reducing fees and cutting regulations.

For example, nonprofits must submit Internal Revenue Service 990 form information to both the federal government and the secretary of state. Deerin says that is unnecessary duplication.

But Hammond says the dual filings are to protect those who donate to charities.

“The secretary of state’s office is really the only line of defense to protect charitable donors, to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of,” Hammond said.

Deerin also says she wants to switch the office to an entirely digital operation.

Hammond takes credit for starting the secretary of state’s existing online operations. “Before I was the elected secretary of state, as far as any online filings, there (were) none,” he said.

Now, the office’s website offers online services to register a charity, for example, and search the membership of state boards and commissions.

“It adds to transparency because now, if you want to find out who is serving on a particular board, you can check the database,” Hammond said.

Next, Hammond says he wants to create a database so people can search S.C. corporations.

‘An uphill battle’

Citadel political scientist Buchanan says the Democratic challengers face an uphill battle to unseat the Republican incumbents because, in part, S.C. voters do not pay attention to down-ticket offices.

Government restructuring advocates long have said the offices should be appointed by the governor, rather than elected. And three of the candidates — Eckstrom, Herbert and Deerin — agree.

“I don’t want to deny the public a vote, but I think for the good of the state overall, this ought to be an appointed office,” Eckstrom said.

Hammond thinks his post should remain elected, saying independence is needed to ensure there are checks and balances in government.

“The people that I talk to tell me that they don’t want to give up their right to vote,” he said. Also, he added, one of his duties as secretary of state includes signing off on executive orders from the governor, and there could be a conflict if the position were appointed by and beholden to the governor.

The Citadel’s Buchanan said he does not think the ethics issues raised by the challengers will play heavily in the minds of voters.

S.C. voters seem little fazed by ethics allegations, regularly returning to office candidates – including former Gov. Mark Sanford – who have been the targets of ethics allegations.

Also, down-ticket incumbents historically have been re-elected in South Carolina, Buchanan said.

“If you’re the Democratic nominee for comptroller or secretary of state, you’re trying to raise any issue that you can, just to get a toehold,” the political scientist said. “It’s an uphill battle.”

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