- Associated Press - Monday, January 13, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Announcing his intention to run to replace Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, Hartsville businessman Michael Luppe (LUHP-ee) said Monday that he has the experience needed to balance the state’s books - and the desire to clear up what he calls corruption in the office.

During an interview with The Associated Press, Luppe said he is challenging Eckstrom in this year’s Republican primary because he wants to restore trust to the position of the state’s top accountant.

“It seems the incumbent has broken our trust,” Luppe, 37, said. “That’s just not acceptable. South Carolinians deserve to be able to trust their elected officials to do what they’re elected to do.”

Luppe was referencing ethics allegations currently pending against Eckstrom, who’s expected to seek a fourth term. In March, the incumbent is scheduled for a hearing on charges he violated ethics law by using campaign money to accompany his girlfriend to the Republican National Convention.

Possible penalties include up to $2,000 per offense and a public reprimand.

According to Eckstrom’s October 2012 campaign disclosure, he spent $1,372 at Innisbrook Resort in Innisbrook, Fla., during the convention. Other reported expenses were three stops for gasoline totaling $238 and two meals costing $32.

Under state law, ethics complaints stay secret until probable cause is found, and hearings are closed to the public unless the subject asks that they be open. On Monday, chief of staff Eddie Gunn said he wasn’t sure whether Eckstrom would elect to make the March hearing public.

Gunn declined to discuss the charges further. In December, he told the AP that the law allows travel expenses connected to a political event to be paid from campaign coffers.

Eckstrom, 65, was first elected comptroller in 2002 and served as South Carolina’s treasurer from 1995 to 1999. During the 2006 campaign, Eckstrom reimbursed the state $669 for taking a state minivan and paying for fuel with a state-issued gas card on a 2004 family vacation to his native Minnesota, which he called a “mistake in judgment.” The state Ethics Commission found no wrongdoing.

On Monday, Luppe said that history convinces him even further that now is the time for Eckstrom to be replaced.

“I just find that to be absurd,” Luppe said. “I’m wondering if Richard Eckstrom knows the difference between right and wrong.”

A buyer with Otis Elevator in Hartsville, Luppe said his experience comparing prices and balancing accounts gives him the experience needed for the job. Among his goals, he said, is examining the fees the state pays on its investments.

Treasurer Curtis Loftis recently announced the state had signed a 10-year contract with the Bank of New York Mellon Corp. as the holding bank for $40.3 billion in state money. Calling the agreement more transparent than previously arrangements, Loftis has said the state has been paying too much in custodial fees - a sentiment with which Luppe agreed.

“The fees that we’re being charged are also some of the highest. It’s a double-edged sword, and it’s not one that’s working out very well,” said Luppe, who said he has not reviewed the contract. “We need to really take a look at how we make those promises.”


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

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