Over the last three months of 2020, the November general election wasn’t the only expense that top S.C. lawmakers covered with campaign funds.
The Nerve’s review of the latest campaign-spending reports filed this month by Senate and House leaders found that a number of them spent some of their campaign funds on sponsorships and other donations to their favorite charities, membership dues to various organizations, and gifts to their staffs or constituents.
And that spending is legal, according to the Senate and House Ethics committees, which interpret state ethics laws for legislators in their respective chambers. Those committees over the years have given lots of leeway in how the 46-member Senate and 124-member House spend campaign funds.
Longtime Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, for example, gave a $3,128 donation last month to the Harvest Hope food bank. The donation was made “in lieu of constituent gifts,” according to his latest report filed with the State Ethics Commission.
The Nerve last year revealed that Leatherman spent nearly $14,000 in campaign funds on “constituent gifts” through a Rhode Island-based ornament company.
Leatherman, who serves on the Senate Ethics Committee and is a past chairman of that panel, spent $1,400 in campaign funds last month on unspecified staff Christmas gifts, his campaign report shows.
State law bans using campaign funds for personal expenses, though that money can cover costs related to a politician’s “office,” which isn’t defined.
In a 1993 opinion issued when Leatherman was the Senate Ethics Committee chairman, the committee acknowledged that state ethics law on the use of campaign funds for office-related expenses is “intentionally broad,” and that the determination about whether the spending is allowed is “by design left largely to the discretion of the member.”
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, for example, spent $1,230 after his November re-election through the University of South Carolina’s ticket office on “gifts for Senate pages,” his campaign report shows.
House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, paid $858 last month to cover a luncheon and flowers for an orientation for freshmen House members, according to his report.
Legislative leaders also were generous with campaign money to various charities, their latest reports show. Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, who is chairwoman of the House Education and Public Works Committee, spent $1,000 on a “2020 Christmas project sponsorship” to the Middle Tyger Community Center, where, according to the center’s website, she serves as a board member.
Allison and Grooms also spent $225 and $1,500, respectively, in campaign funds on sponsorships to South Carolina Citizens for Life. Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, who is chairman of the Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee, donated $300 to the Antioch Baptist Church in Columbia for a church anniversary, according to his report.
Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, who is chairwoman of the Senate Family and Veterans’ Services Committee, spent a collective $1,330 in campaign funds for sponsorships to the Lexington School District 1 Educational Foundation, the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC), Gilbert Little League Football, and The Andy’s Foundation, her latest report shows.
She also spent $500 for an unspecified “office staff” expense, and a collective $543 on nine separate meetings over the last three months with staff or constituents at local restaurants.
Last month, Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, who is chairman of the House Regulations and Administrative Procedures Committee, spent a total of $4,488 in campaign funds on Christmas cards, plus related design and updated list costs, his report shows. He also spent a collective $85 in campaign money on memberships to ABATE of SC and the Rotary Club of St. Andrews-Columbia.
Huggins wasn’t alone in spending campaign funds in recent months on memberships. For example, Senate minority leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, spent $100 on a membership with the Hampton Soil and Water Conservation District, while Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, who is chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, spent $50 on dues to the Lexington Soil and Water Conservation District, records show.
Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, who is the House majority leader, spent $398 in campaign funds on dues to the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce, according to his latest report.
Given legislative leaders’ spending habits, it’s unlikely that lawmakers this session, which started earlier this month, will show much interest in strengthening ethics laws.