- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 14, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Former Charleston Sen. Robert Ford took nearly $15,000 out of his campaign account 10 days after resigning last year and used the money to pay his bills, according to findings presented Wednesday.

The Senate Ethics Committee fined Ford $30,000 for violating 15 counts of state ethics law and ordered him to send $14,758 to the Children’s Trust, a statewide group that supports public and private programs to prevent child abuse.

Ford’s attorney, William Runyon, said Ford doesn’t have the money. It’s unclear what happens if he doesn’t pay.

Ford resigned about a year ago during hearings on similar allegations that he used campaign donations for personal expenses, misrepresented his spending, failed to report numerous expenses and personal loans, and then tried to cover it up. His resignation, citing health reasons, ensured his colleagues could not expel him.

The latest allegations will add to those Attorney General Alan Wilson is still reviewing.

Ford did not attend Wednesday’s ethics hearing, but his attorney agreed with the findings. Bank documents show Ford emptied his campaign bank account June 10 by writing a check to Twin City Outreach Mission Black Community Developer’s Program, an organization his lawyer said he started decades ago.

Checks posted to the Twin City account between last June and January show the money paid for credit card bills, rent and utility bills, tailoring and clothing alterations, car payments, lawn services and personal loan payments. He electronically transferred $800 to his personal bank account Aug. 7, then wrote and endorsed a $500 check to cash from his organization’s account Aug. 26, according to an agreement of facts Runyon signed.

Despite the agreement, Ford says he is innocent.

“These allegations are completely unfounded and are totally false,” Ford said in an email Wednesday, blasting his former colleagues for not showing “common decency and respect” to a 21-year veteran of the Senate.

Asked about the email, Runyon said he couldn’t address it: “I’m not privy to Sen. Ford’s P.R. campaign.”

As he did last year, Runyon blamed bad accounting. He noted state law allows lawmakers to give to a charity, though the committee found that Ford’s Twin City program lacks tax-exempt status and therefore isn’t one.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Luke Rankin said that claim just doesn’t wash, especially considering last year’s allegations.

“It is not bad bookkeeping,” he said.

The latest case arose after Ford notified the committee last October that he’d closed his campaign account, prompting questions about his reported balance. Rather than respond, Ford amended his campaign disclosures - twice - initially claiming in November that he’d spent $11,800 on brochures, birthday cards and envelopes; then claiming in January nearly $8,000 in mileage reimbursements, all from last May.

But subpoenaed bank records revealed otherwise, according to the signed agreement. Fourteen of the 15 violations he was fined for were for misrepresenting information on his campaign disclosures.

“On the face of the documents, it never added up,” Rankin said. “It’s unfortunate. I’d rather have been finished with this last year.”

Runyon said Ford thought his Twin City program qualified as a nonprofit under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church. He contends its previous spending is above-board. The agreement that he used the money for personal benefit applies only to the $14,758, he said.

Runyon has represented Ford since he faced allegations of forgery in 1977 as a Charleston city councilman. Ford was suspended after allegations that he signed people’s names to an annexation petition. He was reinstated and given back pay after a jury acquitted him. He served on the city council from 1974 until his election to Senate in 1992.

Ford’s ethics hearings come during a push for ethics reform. The House and Senate have passed legislation intended to strengthen ethics laws, but the effort is stuck over who handles complaints against legislators. Senators say they’ve proven they can police themselves.

Ford, a New Orleans native, said he’s being made a scapegoat: “I am not from South Carolina and have no family in South Carolina, so they made me their guinea pig.”

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