COLUMBIA — In less than six hours, former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard went from a heartbeat away from being South Carolina’s governor to a disgraced convict serving five years of probation for scheming to violate campaign finance laws and spending money donated to his campaign on himself and his family.
Ard pleaded guilty Friday to seven misdemeanor counts but avoided a possible year in jail on each charge as Circuit Court Judge G. Thomas Cooper decided the 48-year-old Republican made a mistake and seemed contrite.
He gave his resignation note to Gov. Nikki Haley at 10 a.m. In a move that stunned political observers, Senate Pro Tem Glenn McConnell agreed to give up his enormous power and become lieutenant governor instead of stepping aside and letting someone else take the mostly ceremonial role.
Just after 2 p.m., Ard walked into a Richland County courtroom holding his wife’s hand, ready to plead guilty to charges that state Attorney General Alan Wilson had announced an hour before.
Prosecutors and Ard agreed to move swiftly through the legal system.
Ard pleaded guilty to four counts of unlawful reimbursement of campaign funds, two counts of failure to report on campaign documents and one count of using campaign funds for personal use. Prosecutors made no sentencing recommendation, while Ard’s lawyers asked for probation.
Along with the five years of probation, Ard was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and perform 300 hours of community service. The judge suspended a one-year jail sentence as long as he completes the other requirements of his sentence.
During Ard’s 2010 campaign, he developed a scheme “to create the false appearance of a groundswell of political support through fictitious or bogus campaign contributions,” Wilson said.
Ard doled out $75,000 of his own money to people who then donated it back to his campaign. Four family members and friends passed out the money to donors, sometimes in envelopes full of $100 bills, prosecutors said.
Ard also reported $87,500 worth of donations that never existed to make it look like he had more support than he really had, both to chase other candidates out of the race and get influential people to support his campaign, prosecutors said.
After he was elected, Ard used about $10,000 worth of leftover campaign money to buy clothes, electronics such as iPods and video game systems, and a family vacation to Washington, D.C.
“Campaign transparency was in reality campaign deceit,” Wilson said. “Campaign funds cannot be used as a candidate’s own personal slush fund because the candidate may become susceptible to the influence of special interests.”
Ard choked up as he apologized to his wife and three children, who were in the courtroom, for the ordeal of the past year. He said his parents taught him right from wrong and that the people of South Carolina deserved better from him.
“I stand here accepting 100 percent of the blame whether I knew the rules or not, my name was on the sign,” Ard said.
Wilson said he wouldn’t have gone after Ard unless he was sure the fellow Republican knew what he was doing was illegal.
“We don’t prosecute mistakes,” said Wilson, who thinks this is the first case of its kind pursued in the state.
The state’s No. 2 position will now belong to McConnell, who has been in the Senate for 32 years and leader of the body for the past decade.
Some senators thought he might step aside briefly and let someone else become lieutenant governor, which has little power except to preside over the Senate. McConnell said it was one of the hardest decisions he’s made.
“This is the order of succession,” he said. “I’m not going to try to twist it, contort it, interpret it, stretch it into something that it’s not.”
McConnell will take the oath for his new office Tuesday.
The lieutenant governor is paid $46,545 for the part-time job. He presides over the Senate when it is in session and also is in charge of the state Office on Aging.
Friday likely ended the political career of a swift riser through the ranks. Ard served two terms on the Florence County Council before he decided to run for lieutenant governor.
He touted his business experience, which included a truck body manufacturing plant, a convenience store and centipede grass farms.
Ard bankrolled much of his campaign with personal loans, and questions about Ard’s post-election spending were first raised by the Free Times, a Columbia weekly newspaper.
Ard defended and justified the spending in a January 2011 interview with the publication.
“I’ll be honest, I’m not really good at dotting i’s and crossing t’s, but I’ve got a lot – a lot – of money in here and I’m certainly not spending any money on my own personal behalf. ... I’ve got a vast amount of my personal wealth tied up in this campaign and I’m just trying to recoup as much of that as I can,” he said.
The investigation of Ard marks the second time in four years a top state politician has had ethics charges reviewed for criminal prosecution. Then-Gov. Mark Sanford faced questions in 2009 after the Ethics Commission looked into his use of state planes, campaign cash and first-class travel after his revelation that he had an affair with a woman in Argentina. The GOP-dominated House issued a formal rebuke but did not impeach Sanford.
Sanford paid $74,000 in ethics fines and $36,498 to cover the investigation and other costs – the largest ethics fines on record. He also agreed to reimburse his campaign and state agencies for $29,736 in travel and personal expenses.
Then-Attorney General Henry McMaster, a Republican, reviewed the Sanford case but said he found nothing worth prosecuting.
Wilson said it was a tough day. He supported Ard before he won the Republican nomination in 2010 and both men entered office together just over a year ago. He wished Ard’s family well in whatever he does next.
“I entered this day with a heavy heart. I leave it with a heavy heart,” Wilson said. “There’s nothing fun about this for anybody. It doesn’t matter what political party you are in.”