Latest News

S.C. party caucuses spend in secret

South Carolina's Republican and Democratic party caucuses in the legislature have spent $3.4 million since 2008 with no requirement to tell the public how they're using donors' cash.

While it's easy enough to look through spending records of the S.C. Republican Party and Democratic Party with state and federal Internet political money sites, state lawmakers don't have to disclose detailed spending by the party caucuses that shape legislative debate and elections.

They're only required to disclose total spending out of their operating accounts.

Political party spending disclosures can generate controversy.

The GOP is still feeling repercussions from reports that the Republican National Committee spent donor money at a Hollywood club featuring simulated bondage and as federal authorities investigate use of Florida GOP American Express cards.

Under South Carolina law, caucuses can take unlimited cash donations for operating accounts.

For instance, state Ethics Commission reports show a combined total of $90,000 in donations to the Senate Republican Caucus from the South Carolina Hospital Association, an oncology association, cigarette maker Altria and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina in late 2008. And the Senate Democratic Caucus took $10,000 from AT&T last spring and $15,000 from Blue Cross last summer.

Neither the GOP caucus nor its Democratic counterpart will say in their reports where the money has gone.

They don't have to.

"That's the way the law is written," said Cathy Hazelwood, the Ethics Commission's general counsel.

"They did that on purpose," Hazelwood said. "It was specifically for the caucuses not to report where they are spending their money."

That loophole is a stark contrast to what's expected of political parties.

"The political parties have to disclose absolutely everything in their operating account: everything coming in and everything going out.

"The caucuses don't. That's the long and short of it," Hazelwood said.

Leaders of the party caucuses in the Senate said they would consider disclosing spending.

"I didn't know that we didn't disclose every expenditure," said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman John Land of Manning.

"I'm sure we'd be glad to show you every penny we spend. And I would think that would be an appropriate law that we have to report that."

Reports show Land's caucus has spent more than $760,000 since April 2008. Land said most of the spending is on staff salaries and caucus meals and meetings.

"I wouldn't be opposed to that," said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Harvey Peeler of Gaffney. However, he said he wanted to look into why the law was written that way before saying the law should be changed.

Like Land, Peeler said most of the $1.3 million his caucus reported spending since April 2008 went into salaries and meals - including Chick-fil-A lunches bought as Thursday's session appeared headed toward a filibuster.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Kenny Bingham of Cayce said there is nothing wrong with keeping the spending details secret. Ethics reports show the House GOP Caucus has spent $1.2 million since April 2008.

"We don't' want everything we do strategy-wise broadcast to the world," Bingham said.

Legislative caucuses are private membership organizations that spend no public money and should be treated no differently from any other private business or charity, Bingham said.

Because the caucuses detail who is giving money, Bingham said, "We disclose more through our caucuses than any other 501(c)3," he said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Harry Ott of St. Matthews said he wouldn't immediately comment without a better understanding of the legal reporting requirements. His caucus has spent nearly $450,000 since April 2008.

  Comments