- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - State ethics officials on Wednesday dismissed charges that South Carolina Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom used campaign money to accompany his girlfriend to the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Herb Hayden, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said in an email to The Associated Press that commissioners voted to dismiss the charges against Eckstrom and would likely issue a written ruling in several weeks.

The ruling came hours after Eckstrom’s attorney, Mitch Willoughby, told the commission that existing state law permitted such expenditures.

“He attended all of the events,” Willoughby told the panel during a hearing. “He didn’t travel to Florida to go to Disney World.” Willoughby did not immediately return a message seeking comment after the commission reached its decision.

Last year, the commission found probable cause that Eckstrom violated state ethics law, a determination that opened the proceedings to the public. Eckstrom, first elected to the office in 2002, reported spending $1,642 in campaign money for gasoline, food and a hotel stay during the GOP gathering in August 2012. Eckstrom’s girlfriend was an alternate delegate to the convention.

Eckstrom had previously attended several GOP conventions in an official capacity, Willoughby said. Each of those times, he reimbursed himself from his campaign funds, as is permitted under state law for expenses directly related to a campaign or for normal office expenses.

The 2012 trip was no different, Willoughby argued, saying Eckstrom - though not an elected delegate - was still conducting political business, both as a South Carolina official and also a likely candidate for future political office.

“At the end of the day, he decided to go to a political event,” Willoughby argued, citing state statutes and a 2003 House Ethics panel opinion adopted by the state commission on the use of campaign funds. “And he participated in all of the events. And that’s the end of the inquiry.

Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood argued that since Eckstrom played no official role at the convention or any of its associated events, his trip was tantamount to nothing more than a vacation.

“If he had been a delegate, if he had been an alternate delegate, then he could have used those campaign funds,” she said. “If you’re a guest, it may be a political event, but you should not be using your campaign funds.”

Eckstrom, who also served as state treasurer from 1995 to 1999, is expected to seek a fourth term as South Carolina’s top accountant this year. He had more than $143,000 cash available as of his latest campaign filing in January.

Eckstrom attended Wednesday’s hearing but did not address the commission. Possible penalties included up to $2,000 per offense and a public reprimand, and state law allows for ethics fines to be paid from campaign cash.

Eckstrom has previously faced scrutiny for a trip. During the 2006 campaign, he used a state minivan and paid for fuel with a state-issued gas card on a 2004 family vacation to his native Minnesota, which he called a “mistake in judgment.” He reimbursed the state $669. The state Ethics Commission investigated and found no wrongdoing.


Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP