- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Former state Senator Robert Ford must serve five years of probation on charges connected to an ethics case involving campaign funds spent on expenses including gym memberships, clothes and male enhancement drugs, according to a sentence handed down Thursday.

During a brief hearing in Columbia, Circuit Judge Robert Hood also ordered the 66-year-old Charleston Democrat to pay nearly $70,000 in restitution to South Carolina’s general fund.

Ford was indicted last year on misconduct in office, forgery of less than $10,000 and six Ethics Act violations. Those include two counts each of personal use of campaign funds, depositing campaign contributions into personal accounts and false reporting.

Prosecutors said he improperly benefited from public office, using campaign money for personal use, then filing false campaign reports and submitting forgeries to the Senate Ethics Committee. In court Thursday, prosecutor Creighton Waters said that more than $69,000 had been spent on items including male enhancement drugs and items from an adult entertainment store.

Citing health reasons, Ford resigned from the Senate during 2013 hearings on similar allegations. His resignation ensured that his colleagues could not expel him. He said the items had been gifts for staffers and gifts for people who had worked on projects with him.

Officials said Ford took nearly $15,000 out of his campaign account 10 days after resigning and used the money to pay bills. In May 2014, Senate Ethics 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.

After his indictment by the state grand jury, Ford pleaded guilty in January to misconduct in office, forgery and two violations of the state ethics law. After his plea, Ford told reporters he only pleaded guilty to avoid the costs of a trial and had been the victim of a witch hunt by lawmakers eager to run him out.

Ford could have faced more than a decade in prison. The misconduct charge, while technically a misdemeanor, carries a possible 10-year penalty. The ethics charges are all misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in prison, as was the forgery count.

But in determining an appropriate sentence - seven years in prison, suspended to five years probation - Hood said Ford had no criminal record, had served the public for decades and must be sentenced in line with other political figures who faced similar charges.

Last year, former House Speaker Bobby Harrell resigned as part of a guilty plea to six campaign finance violations, all of which were misdemeanors. Prosecutors said the Charleston Republican improperly used campaign money to pay for flights on his private plane.

Ford was also ordered to perform 350 hours of community service, a punishment he said he’d carry out gladly.

“I do a lot of stuff for a lot of people,” he said after the hearing, also saying he didn’t rule out another bid for political office in the future.

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


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