- Associated Press - Monday, June 2, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina Ethics Commission is cautioning candidates in next week’s primary not to accept donations that put them over the per-cycle state limit.

The commission released an advisory opinion Monday about a quirk in state law regarding when a donation can be applied to a primary runoff.

Runoffs are held two weeks after the primary. But when it comes to donations, the runoff cycle doesn’t begin until a week after the primary. Donors who already gave the maximum $3,500 toward a primary can’t contribute again until the week before the runoff.

The seven-day rule is clear in state law, but there’s a perceived inconsistency, and candidates have occasionally received incorrect advice from staff, the commission wrote in its opinion, dated May 21.

The opinion doesn’t target past elections.

“The commission issues this opinion to provide guidance for future candidates, rather than penalizing past candidates who relied on the wrong interpretation of the campaign finance law,” it reads. “This is an issue for those candidates who have accepted maximum contributions in the primary and find themselves in the primary runoff and immediately seek additional contributions from those same contributors.”

Candidates in 2010 who had excessive contributions because of the seven-day rule included Gov. Nikki Haley and her Democratic foe, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen - who will be in a rematch with her in November - as well as Attorney General Alan Wilson and his Democratic opponent.

While the commission’s opinion lets them off the hook, Wilson has already refunded donations that topped the legal limit because of that rule. His campaign disclosure reports show he returned 15 such donations in the first quarter, making him the only candidate to retroactively comply.

Scrutiny on the seven-day rule was raised amid Wilson’s ethics investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who maintains he’s done nothing wrong.