- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The House Ethics Committee on Thursday ordered Rep. Harold Mitchell to pay a $16,100 fine and reimburse his campaign account nearly $7,400 for improper expenses.

The 10-person committee found the 48-year-old Spartanburg Democrat lacked required receipts, improperly withdrew cash from his account, paid campaign expenses with cash, failed to report contributions and expenses, and took out cash while depositing donations. The committee called his ethics violations unintentional. They span 2008 to 2013. State law sets a four-year limitation on ethics violations.

Mitchell “had a habit of using cash and extremely poor record-keeping, and not just in his campaign,” said Chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, whose committee reviewed Mitchell’s personal and business accounts, too. “It’s a compilation of very sloppy bookkeeping and a misunderstanding of what’s allowed under the law.”

The $7,388 he must repay includes $1,050 he spent for a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina to stay in a Spartanburg hotel from November 2008 through January 2009. Bingham said that’s a very humanitarian thing to do for a family in need, and he didn’t personally benefit, but it’s not an allowed use of campaign donations.

Other amounts he must repay include a $1,847 personal loan payment, $350 spent on dry cleaning, $175 for medication, and $64 on oil changes.

He must return nearly $2,900 he took out in cash or by writing checks to himself. He contends those expenses were legitimate - such as for travel expenses, gas, cellphone bills and an Election Day van rental - but he lacked documentation to support his explanations, according to the order.

Mitchell, first elected in 2005, said he’s glad the ordeal is over but declined further comment, saying he hadn’t read the order.

At his hearing last November, the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus told his colleagues he kept shoddy records and didn’t properly pay his bills, but did not use his campaign account for personal benefit.

The committee’s investigation grew out of Mitchell’s criminal case. He turned himself in on tax-evasion charges in September 2011. After prosecutors forwarded information to the committee in spring 2012, Mitchell took the rare step of asking his ethics case to be made public. He then pleaded guilty that November, weeks after winning re-election, to misdemeanor charges of not filing his 2007 and 2008 returns on time.

The panel voted unanimously in February 2013 that probable cause existed to proceed with an investigation.

The committee found the law is too ambiguous to fault Mitchell for a $12,000 transfer to his nonprofit in July 2008, since there’s no proof he personally benefited. While it doesn’t look good, nothing in state law bars legislators from transferring money to a nonprofit, even if it’s theirs. Mitchell has said that money sponsored a construction trade class for homeless people, who received cash stipends to participate.

“The law is as clear as mud,” Bingham said.

The committee, split equally between Republicans and Democrats, plans to issue an advisory opinion to House members that they shouldn’t donate to a nonprofit connected to them, an immediate family member, or their business. Bingham said the committee also plans to help educate colleagues on state ethics law.

“Everyone realized that there are obviously differences of opinion and different understanding levels of what’s allowed,” he said.

State law allows Mitchell to pay fines from his campaign account. But, as of March 31, he had just $823 in that account, according to his first-quarter disclosure report. The committee will work with Mitchell on a payment plan, Bingham said.

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