The Senate Ethics Committee issued a complaint Thursday after finding probable cause that the 65-year-old Charleston Democrat improperly used campaign money after he resigned last year as a hearing was going on that publicly detailed similar allegations over four years, which included adult-store purchases.
The complaint, hand-delivered to Ford, alleges ethics violations were found in campaign disclosure reports due last July and October, covering the second and third quarters of last year. Ford resigned May 31, as the second day of his hearing began, which removed the possibility of his colleagues expelling him.
That case is still under review at the attorney general’s office.
Ford’s lawyer, William Runyon, said he’s not sure what the latest complaint is about.
“This was a surprise to me,” he said Friday, noting he’s talked with state investigators about the other matter.
Last May, Runyon said Ford, a senator for 20 years, resigned to “lessen the pressure personally and psychologically.”
Later that day, the 10-member ethics committee determined there was overwhelming evidence to prove that Ford violated eight sections of South Carolina’s ethics law and forwarded all supporting documents to Attorney General Alan Wilson, as per Ford’s request.
Runyon asked senators to send the case to Wilson for further investigation without levying fines or making specific findings.
Ford still faces those accusations of using campaign donations for personal expenses, misrepresenting his spending, failing to report numerous charges, donations and personal loans and then trying to cover it up. There were multiple specific charges within each broad allegation — one alone containing 357 examples — covering campaign filings between July 2009 and last April.
Runyon blamed the problems on bad bookkeeping by a citizen lawmaker who tried to handle all his accounting and campaign filing without a staff.
“Sen. Ford’s done a lot of good. Bookkeeping isn’t one of them,” he said then.
The previous charges include making a car payment and paying his home utility bill with campaign money, which Runyon said Ford considered a legitimate expense because his home also functioned as his political office. Ford explained adult-store purchases as gag gifts for people who helped with his community work but refused pay. He said somebody fraudulently used his debit card to buy male enhancement pills.
The public hearing against Ford was a first for the Senate Ethics Committee. The complaint means Ford will also be the subject of its second hearing.
Ford has 15 days to respond. After the hearing, the committee’s options include dismissing the case, issuing a public reprimand, fining Ford $2,000 per violation, and referring the latest allegations to Wilson, too.
The complaint was issued as the Senate resumed debate on changes in ethics laws. Debate over who will investigate legislators has stalled the bill’s progress.
In her State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Nikki Haley again called on the Legislature to pass an ethics bill that ends the system of legislators investigating their colleagues. Currently, House and Senate panels oversee the filings of their current and former members, as well as candidates seeking a seat in the chambers, while the State Ethics Commission is responsible for all other state and local officeholders.
Last year, senators pointed to their handling of Ford’s case as an example of the system working.