Editor’s note: This Uncovered investigation was produced in collaboration with The Aiken Standard, The Anderson Observer, The (Chester) News and Reporter, The Gaffney Ledger, The (Greenwood) Index-Journal, Kingstree News, The Newberry Observer, The (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat, The Sumter Item and The Voice of Blythewood and Fairfield.
In South Carolina, everyday residents who don’t pay their traffic tickets can be sent to jail.
Motorists who fall behind on their vehicle taxes can be taken off the road.
Homeowners can be saddled with property liens for failing to cover their debts.
But public officials who refuse to pay their fines for skirting the state’s ethics laws? They can keep their powerful posts indefinitely.
Year after year, dozens of them from across the Palmetto State blow off fines they owe to the state Ethics Commission, allowing their debts to accrue with little or no consequences. The total owed to taxpayers? Nearly $2.9 million racked up by 370 politicians, local officials and various deadbeats who refuse to pay up, an Uncovered investigation has found.
The investigation identified no fewer than 50 officials with more than $250,000 in outstanding debts who currently hold office. They are mayors, county council members, auditors — even state lawmakers — serving in influential posts from South Carolina’s Upstate to the Lowcountry.
Unlike in other states, nothing in South Carolina law prevents these debtors from continuing to hold or seek office. And they do. Scores of them have won re-election while stiff-arming the state’s ethics watchdog, a strapped agency with little authority to collect on its fines.
The $2.9 million in outstanding fines is about double what the Legislature provides the agency in annual funding. The commission relies on fines and fees for nearly a quarter of its funding, money it uses to hire investigators and keep an eye on public officials.
The Ethics Commission almost certainly will never recoup all the money owed. No fewer than 25 of its debtors are dead, the newspaper investigation found. Roughly 130 more former officials left some $1 million in fines in their rearview when they left office and have refused to pay up in the years since.
Many of the fines stem from paperwork violations, like when officials fail to file their personal financial disclosures or miss campaign reporting deadlines. Such reports are bedrock to any system of government accountability.
The Ethics Commission has also cited officials for mishandling conflicts of interest and dipping into the public till. Some of those offenders remain delinquent, too.
Among the ranks of the Ethics Commission’s “debtors list”:
- A Columbia-area school board member who owes more than $57,000 in fines and late fees after repeatedly neglecting to file campaign and lobbying disclosures and misreporting spending from her campaign bank account.
- A former Yemassee mayor cited for improperly signing checks to his used-car business from town accounts. He said he was tricked into the arrangement and refuses to pay his $35,700 debt.
- A state lawmaker who promised he would address his $10,000 in fines when he ran for the S.C. House of Representatives in 2018. He never did.
The Post and Courier dug through the list in collaboration with 10 local newsrooms across the state as part of Uncovered, a yearlong project dedicated to exposing government misconduct and the Palmetto State’s broken system of ethical oversight.
The papers’ investigation shines more light on South Carolina’s toothless efforts to police public officials.
It also reveals the strikingly low regard with which public officials hold the Ethics Commission, the state agency charged with watchdogging those we elect.
Some lawmakers, including Sen. Greg Hembree, have proposed fixes, such as barring debtors from running for re-election until they pay their ethics fines.
But those efforts have gained no traction in the General Assembly.
“I don’t care how good your ethics law is … if you’ve got no effective enforcement, you don’t really have a law,” Hembree, a Little River Republican, said.
The Post and Courier and its Uncovered partners fanned the state to study this problem, track down debtors who hold public office and get to the bottom of why the Ethics Commission has such a hard time enforcing the fines it levies.
On a Thursday morning in June, an investigator with the Ethics Commission peered out into the common area of a glassy office building in Columbia and called out a name.
“Samuetta Marshall?” he said three times.
He received no answer from the empty hallway. The Ethics Commission had scheduled a hearing over a handful of violations against Marshall, the longtime coroner of Orangeburg County. But she wasn’t there.
It was hardly a surprise. For years, the Ethics Commission has struggled to reach Marshall and scores of other officials and persuade them to file campaign reports and ethics disclosures that state law requires of public officials.
Those disclosures are important. They show who is funding a public official’s campaign and whether that official is spending that money legally. Annual ethics filings — called statements of economic interest — show an official’s sources of income and reveal possible conflicts of interest.
But, like Marshall, hundreds of public officials chronically fail to file them on time. Many don’t file them at all.
Such infractions carry a $100 penalty in South Carolina. Most officials who miss a deadline quickly come into compliance.
But some don’t, even after the ethics officials send additional notices and begin imposing additional daily $100 penalties.
At Marshall’s June hearing, ethics agents laid out a list of campaign reports and financial disclosures the veteran coroner had failed to file. Records show Marshall missed the deadline to file her annual financial disclosure eight times between 2009-19, along with other necessary campaign reports.
Investigators testified they called, emailed and wrote letters to Marshall. One said he reached Marshall just once, over the phone, and she pledged to file the required reports. She finally did in January.
“I tried 11 times to get her to come into compliance,” the investigator told ethics commissioners.
In a text message to The Post and Courier, Marshall complained that the Ethics Commission was dinging her baselessly. She said she didn’t rush to file a 2016 campaign report because she didn’t raise money for that race. Marshall declined to address her failure to file several years’ worth of ethics disclosures until this year.
Last month, the Ethics Commission slapped her with a new, $22,600 judgment for neglecting her disclosures. If Marshall fails to pay, she will be the next public official added to the debtors list.
Clawing the money back
The 28-page list is already long because of the Ethics Commission’s troubles to recoup what is owed.
The Ethics Commission is able to claw back a fraction of its debts through wage and tax refund garnishment programs, about $89,000 a year over the past five years. But as new names are added to the commission’s list every year, those garnishment efforts barely make a dent.
And the Ethics Commission is not alone. The state House and Senate ethics committees, which initially handle ethics complaints against legislators, have scores of debtors and the same limited means of recouping money from them.
The trio of debtors lists include three sitting S.C. House members and U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace. The Charleston Republican faces a $5,100 fine, handed down in January, for missing a report on an S.C. House campaign account she hasn’t yet closed but was tied to when she served in the Legislature.
Asked about the matter by The Post and Courier, a spokeswoman said Mace would address the fine and close the account.
Debtors must pay the fines out of their pockets, not with campaign money.
The Ethics Commission often tries to resolve these cases by offering to reduce their fines.
But even that doesn’t always work.
Consider the case of Lynchburg Mayor Andre Laws. In 2016, the Ethics Commission slashed his $5,500 fine for failing to file a disclosure form to $1,000, as long as he paid within 90 days. But Laws, who was re-elected in 2019, never came through.
He told a reporter recently that the commission was garnishing his $150 monthly government wage. He said he was “not going to take money out of my household to pay this fine.” He now owes nearly $8,400.
In fact, much of the millions owed to the commission is considered “bad debt” that the agency will likely never recover.
For one, a few of the fines are more than two decades old. Many of the debtors are retirees who have no wages to garnish.
Another two dozen debtors will surely never be able to square up with the Ethics Commission. At least not in this life. Before paying off their fines, they died.
Thumbing their noses
Yet it’s nearly just as difficult for the Ethics Commission to collect from officials who remain in the public eye. More than 50 debtors continue to hold office, while largely ignoring the ethics agency’s demands.
Richland Two School Board member Amelia McKie owes more than $57,000 — the highest fines among sitting officials. She failed to file her campaign disclosures on time in at least 15 instances.
McKie told a reporter this month she “will continue to comply with the Commission by continuing to chip away at the late fees.”
Others refused to own up to their behavior and pay their fines even when found to have committed serious ethical breaches.
Glenn Miller, the former mayor of Branchville, hasn’t paid a nearly $1,600 fine. The Ethics Commission ruled he used a town vehicle and credit card inappropriately and then improperly voted on a matter involving himself. Miller said recently he can’t afford to pay.
At least 20 of the debtors were also charged with criminal offenses, in addition to their ethics infractions. They include:
- Former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who resigned in 2012 after his indictment for funneling $87,500 in “phantom contributions” to his campaign account. The charges came after the Ethics Commission fined Ard for improperly spending campaign cash on a PlayStation, flat-screen TV, football tickets and trips. The Florence Republican still owes the agency $900 for more recent paperwork offenses.
- Ex-Richland County Councilwoman Dalhi Myers, who was indicted and booted from office in December 2020 on 24 corruption charges. Prosecutors allege she used her government credit card to cover tens of thousands of dollars in flights and other personal expenses. She has not entered a plea in that case.
- Ex-Union County Clerk of Court Brad Morris, who racked up more than $30,000 in ethics fines for paperwork issues. Then he was sentenced to prison in 2011 for embezzling more than $200,000 in public funds.
- Former Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin, who tallied $8,000 in paperwork fines during his 2008 election campaign. Melvin was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2011 for taking kickbacks to protect drug dealers.
State Rep. Bruce Bryant, a Lake Wylie Republican, said those cases show why it’s critical the state have an aggressive watchdog with authority to rein in misbehavior.
Passing the buck
Most of the Ethics Commission’s cases have never been publicized. Thinning staff at local news outlets is one likely explanation. But South Carolina’s Ethics Commission, unlike in other states, also doesn’t post details of these cases online for the public to peruse.
Bamberg voters probably weren’t aware of City Councilwoman Bobbi Bunch’s nearly $19,000 debt before re-electing her this year. In an interview, Bunch said she is working to pay down her fines for failing to file campaign reports in 2014 and 2017 and four years’ of financial disclosures. She blamed her fines on the commission, saying it hadn’t done enough to warn her about her missed filings.
Summerton Town Councilman Terrance Tindal was re-elected in 2020. That was despite owing more than $19,000 to taxpayers for missing deadlines to file three annual financial disclosures. Tindal told a reporter he wanted to “get it behind me” but wasn’t aware how much he still owed.
When officials are confronted by reporters, some have promised to address their fines.
Bamberg City Councilman Leslie Hayes, re-elected in April, said he didn’t understand how his $100 fine for failing to file a 2017 form had somehow become a $5,000 debt. “I’m trying to get it right,” he said.
Others offered excuses and, in a few cases, outright defiance. They described their punishments as overly harsh or unfair. They failed to understand what they had done wrong, or why it matters.
Honea Path Councilwoman Rebecca Robinson complained the disclosure requirements that led to her $1,300 fine are “crazy” and “stupid.”
Then there is Anthony Brown, the former Charleston County constituent school board member. He still owes nearly $47,500 from failing to file his ethics disclosures on time in 2010 and 2011. A Columbia TV journalist confronted Brown about the debt at a 2014 board meeting. The trustee responded by shoving the journalist into a wall.
Jerry Cook, the ex-Yemassee mayor, refuses to pay his nearly $36,000 fine on principle. The ethics agency found he had improperly signed checks from the town to his used-car shop. In a recent interview, Cook said he did nothing wrong.
He insisted he was tricked into the situation by a disgruntled town employee, who assured him there was no conflict of interest.
Then, Cook said, ethics investigators put him and his sickly wife through hell as they probed the allegations.
He can’t bear to pay them a dime.
Making it right
In interviews, debtor after debtor shifted blame to the Ethics Commission. They said the agency doesn’t adequately warn them about their fines and is overzealous about prosecuting paperwork offenses. Some said the agency’s online filing system is too difficult to navigate.
“This is not an ethics issue. It’s a clerical issue,” said Pelzer Mayor Will Ragland, who owes the agency $17,300 after missing nearly 20 filing deadlines.
Former Ethics Commission leaders pushed back, saying the commission goes above and beyond to train public officials on how to file their disclosures, remind them about deadlines and contact them when there is a problem.
The agency fields thousands of phone calls a year from public officials. Staffers help them navigate the filing system and decide what to disclose.
The excuses are “complete and total B.S.,” former longtime Ethics Commission general counsel Cathy Hazelwood said.
“You do not wake up one morning without notice with a four-figure or five-figure debt owed to the commission,” said Hazelwood, who was the agency’s top lawyer from 1999 to 2015.
Some officials acknowledged they forgot about deadlines and ignored warning letters.
Ninety Six Mayor Mike Rowe admitted he didn’t pay attention to the repeated notices about his $5,300 debt until earlier this year. That’s when the commission’s wage garnishment caused him to miss a utility payment and have his water cut off.
More than a dozen current and former officials did not respond to requests for comment. Most who did pledged to address their fines.
But records show officials have failed to follow through on those promises time and time again.
State Rep. Shedron Williams owes more than $10,000 in fines from paperwork issues during his time as a Hampton County councilman. He blamed his issues on a person he said he hired to handle his paperwork. The Hampton Democrat said he was asking the Ethics Commission to waive his fines.
It isn’t the first time Williams has pledged to address the debt. During his successful 2018 campaign for a Statehouse seat, he told the Island Packet newspaper of Hilton Head he would take care of it. He never did.
A fix on the horizon
During his two years as the Ethics Commission’s director, Steve Hamm saw plenty of problems with the agency’s ability to enforce its rules.
“There has to be some consequence,” said Hamm, who left the agency in 2018. “Or people are not going to pay.”
For Hamm, one solution was simple: Bar debtors from running for office until they have paid their fines. Other states, including Tennessee and Missouri, have similar safeguards in place.
But S.C. lawmakers were less enthused when he approached them with the idea, he said.
Indeed, efforts to pass that proposal into law have failed again and again in recent years.
More accurately, the bills haven’t even been debated.
Still, two lawmakers who filed the proposals again this year are hopeful the idea can gain momentum when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Hembree, the Little River Republican, noted there is precedent in South Carolina law for barring certain types of people from running for office.
Convicted felons, for instance, can’t get on the ballot until at least 15 years after their sentence ends.
And in 2012, the S.C. Supreme Court booted as many as 100 candidates from their primary ballots for failing to timely file their statements of economic interest, a move that hasn’t been repeated since.
After he was briefed on the findings of this story, Bryant said he would bolster the ethics reform bill he proposed last year. The former York County sheriff pledged to add language that would require the governor to suspend elected officials from office until they pay their ethics fines.
“Maybe we should add a little more meat to that law,” Bryant said.
Hembree likes the idea.
“That ought to get their attention,” he said.
Three lawmakers who might vote on such a bill, including Williams, are on ethics lists themselves.
Democratic state Reps. Cezar McKnight of Kingstree and Carl Anderson of Georgetown together owe more than $66,000 to the Senate Ethics Committee after failed runs for Senate. A voicemail inbox for a number listed for Anderson was full. No one returned a message from a number listed for McKnight.
South Carolina’s next-door neighbors have other methods of adding teeth to their ethics enforcement.
North Carolina’s ethics commission refers cases with unpaid debts exceeding $500 to the state attorney general, giving collection efforts the full force of the state’s highest law enforcement officer. That office sent demand letters to debtors in two dozen cases over the last three years.
Georgia also enlists its attorney general to help collect. Like South Carolina, the state garnishes wages from debtors.
But unlike South Carolina, neither Georgia nor North Carolina publishes a list of debtors.
South Carolina officials have seen that as a key strategy in collecting the debts. In many cases, money would trickle in only after a newspaper published an article about an official who owed.
Describing the agency’s strategy, Hazelwood said, “Shame them.”
So far, in hundreds of cases, that hasn’t worked.
Colin Demarest of The Aiken Standard, Greg Wilson of The Anderson Observer, Travis Jenkins of The (Chester) News and Reporter, Larry Hilliard of The Gaffney Ledger, Damian Dominguez of The (Greenwood) Index-Journal, Richard Caines of The (Kingstree) News, Andrew Wigger of The Newberry Observer, Dionne Gleaton of The (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat, Kayla Green of The Sumter Item and Barbara Ball of The Voice of Blythewood and Fairfield contributed to this story. Intern Mary Steurer also contributed research.