COLUMBIA — State Sen. Robert Ford resigned Friday amid allegations that included spending campaign money at adult stores, and the Senate Ethics Committee referred his case to the state attorney general’s office for review based on “multiple violations” of South Carolina’s ethics law.
Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Columbia, announced Ford’s resignation, effective immediately, just as the committee hearing’s second day began.
In its final order, the committee determined there was overwhelming evidence to support allegations that the Charleston Democrat violated eight sections of South Carolina’s ethics law.
Ford is accused of using campaign donations for personal expenses; misrepresenting his spending; failing to report numerous expenses, donations and personal loans; and then trying to cover it up. There are specific charges over four years within each broad allegation. Senators specified that one contained 357 examples.
Ford, a senator for 20 years, decided to resign to “lessen the pressure personally and psychologically,” particularly in light of his high blood pressure and
cardiovascular issues, said his attorney, William Runyon.
Ford did not attend Friday’s hearing. The 64-year-old experienced chest pains after Thursday’s proceedings and spent the night in a Columbia hospital. He went to Charleston on Friday for further tests, Runyon said.
Before Ford’s colleagues went into executive session, Runyon asked them to forward the case to Attorney General Alan Wilson for further investigation without issuing fines or making specific findings. Runyon noted Ford could face fines later.
“We’re looking for as much mercy as we can get,” he told the 10 senators. “There’s no question we have terrible accounting problems.”
Runyon seemed pleased after the order was posted online.
“I guess we got what we wanted,” he said.
Committee Chairman Luke Rankin commended Ford for stepping down.
“His move today has certainly lifted a heavy burden off of me individually. The decision to expel would not be lightly taken by anybody,” said Rankin, R-Conway.
On Thursday, the committee heard the charges against Ford included allegations that he used campaign money for adult-store purchases and male enhancement pills.
After that hearing, Ford said the adult-store purchases were gag gifts for people who helped with his community work but refused pay. Small gifts for campaign staffers are allowed under ethics laws.
Ford said somebody fraudulently used his debit card to buy Cyvita, pills used for male enhancement that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The committee’s attorney, Lyn Odom, said he found nearly $20,000 that should have gone into Ford’s campaign accounts but was diverted to his personal accounts. He said he found nearly $48,000 in unreported contributions after comparing Ford’s campaign filings with his bank records.
Giving examples of altered documents, Odom said Ford turned in checks that explained payments as covering campaign or charity expenses when subpoenaed documents showed they paid his auto and renter’s insurance bills. On other copies of checks, the name of the recipient had been changed, Odom said.
Runyon blamed the problems on bad bookkeeping by a lawmaker who tried to handle all of his accounting and campaign filing without a staff.
“Sen. Ford’s done a lot of good. Bookkeeping isn’t one of them,” he said. “You can get behind the eight-ball real fast. If you try to play catch-up too fast, you make mistakes.”
The public hearing against Ford was a first for the Senate Ethics Committee, which also ordered the online posting of documents supporting the case after they’re redacted of personal information, such as bank account numbers.
Two other senators have been penalized for non-technical ethics violations since 2010. Former Sen. Jake Knotts was publicly reprimanded. And Sen. Kent Williams paid a $5,390 penalty last fall for accepting 15 larger-than-allowed campaign donations. But those cases did not reach the hearing process.
Ford, who served on Charleston City Council from 1974 until his election to Senate, easily won his sixth term last November.
A special election to fill his seat in the majority-black Charleston district will be Oct. 1, following Aug. 13 primaries, according to the state Election Commission.