- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 16, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The State Ethics Commission refused Wednesday to dismiss a complaint against Republican Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster that accuses him of taking about $72,000 in illegal campaign donations after his loss in the 2010 governor’s race.

McMaster’s attorney, Butch Bowers, agreed the former two-term attorney general violated the law but said he did so unintentionally to pay the campaign’s outstanding bills.

“There is no dispute about the facts,” he told the agency’s governing board. But “there are no allegations of misuse of funds here.”

Bowers asked the board to issue an advisory opinion, essentially instructing McMaster and all other candidates to follow the law in the future.

The board unanimously declined, saying there’s nothing ambiguous about the law to clarify.

A hearing is set for next month, but Bowers said McMaster will likely settle before then. That will likely involve McMaster reopening his account and raising money from other supporters to pay back donors who gave too much.

The allegations involve McMaster’s unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. Under state law, a candidate for statewide office can accept a maximum of $3,500 from one donor per election cycle.

Bowers agreed that McMaster’s campaign accepted 51 over-the-limit contributions to pay off his campaign’s debt after losing a four-way GOP primary. He did not advance to a runoff.

For months, Bowers argued that McMaster’s debt retirement effort represented a separate, post-election cycle. But he acknowledged Wednesday there’s no such thing.

He said McMaster, who touted his work on ethics reform during last year’s race, mistakenly relied on a 1992 opinion from the Ethics Commission, which involved similar campaign debt from his unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 1990.

Commissioner Frank Grimball said that doesn’t make sense, since contribution limits didn’t exist in 1990. The Legislature didn’t pass the state ethics law creating the commission until 1992. Its opinion that year made clear that’s why the otherwise above-limit donations were acceptable to settle debt in that scenario, he said.

“How in the world could there have been a misunderstanding based on that?” Grimball asked.

Bowers acknowledged he didn’t think the law allowed it and would have advised the campaign differently.

“I wouldn’t have reached that conclusion if I was looking at it, but they did,” he said, before repeating his dismissal request. None of the donors are asking for their money back, he said.

Ethics Commission attorney Michael Burchstead said Bowers is seeking an exception for McMaster, a campaign veteran, that’s not given to candidates who have never run for office and understandably don’t know what state law requires of them.

“Still, we hold them to the law because the law is the law. To treat this situation any different, I think, would be troubling precedent,” Burchstead said. Calling the situation a “gross misreading” of the law, he said, is giving the campaign credit.

McMaster, the U.S. attorney for South Carolina from 1981 to 1985, has run for various offices since 1986 and was chairman of the state Republican Party for a decade.

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