- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A House panel says legislators can’t use donations to pay for dry cleaning or vehicle maintenance, but it’s OK to charge a suit to the campaign as long as it’s worn only at the Statehouse or political events.

A House Ethics subcommittee advanced a list Tuesday of what House members can and can’t legally buy with donations. The recommendations require approval by the full Ethics Committee.

It would serve as advice for representatives’ future spending. The committee would not use it to punish past spending.

The list of 26 do’s and don’ts answered legislators’ specific questions to the panel, asked amid Solicitor David Pascoe’s investigation into possible Statehouse corruption.

Not allowing representatives to use donations to pay membership dues to private clubs would be a reversal of previous practice. But it’s in line with an opinion issued last year by the State Ethics Commission, which applies to all officeholders except legislators.

The panel’s chairman, Rep. Murrell Smith, said clubs used to send invitation letters to freshmen legislators “saying you can use your campaign account to join.”

Under the recommended rules, representatives could use donations to pay dues for political groups, such as caucuses, and to newly join civic groups, if the membership is tied directly to being a House member.

Smith, R-Sumter, gave the Rotary Club as an example: “If I’m in there as an attorney, I can’t pay the dues for that.”

Many of the items deemed “permissible” come with complicated caveats.

For example, buying formal attire with donations is allowed, but the clothes can be worn for official duties only. Wearing that suit to church or a wedding, too, would make the purchase illegal. Considered campaign assets, the clothes must be “disposed of” once the legislator leaves office.

It would be OK to donate to schools, churches and other nonprofits with donations, as long as that nonprofit isn’t associated with the legislator, that legislator’s family or business.

House members could no longer dine with a constituent or lobbyist on the campaign’s tab. While that had been allowed if legislation was discussed during the meal, there were concerns about campaign accounts paying for regular dining on the pretext that legislation might be discussed, according to staff.

However, the proposal would allow House members to use donations to buy food for campaign staff and for office-related group functions.

Campaign accounts can’t pay for gas or vehicle maintenance because legislators already get paid mileage, which is supposed to cover that.

The panel’s recommendations also refine the Ethics Committee’s position on legal expenses taken with former House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

In February, the committee ordered their former colleague to pay the state nearly $113,500 to cover donations used to pay his attorney. Harrell, who had been speaker since 2005, pleaded guilty in October 2014 to six misdemeanor campaign finance violations.

The panel’s recommendations specify that donations can’t pay for legal expenses to defend personal misconduct once the legislator is criminally charged or indicted. If there’s no conviction, the legislator may be able to reimburse himself from his campaign account if the committee approves.

Harrell’s plea deal required him to resign and cooperate in any ongoing investigations. No other lawmakers have been charged, but the probe continues.

Currently, the State Ethics Commission oversees the campaign filings of all officeholders except legislators. That changes next year, when a law passed in June expands the agency’s authority. House and Senate ethics panels will no longer investigate their own members, but they will still decide on any punishment. And the commission will use the panels’ opinions when deciding whether a legislator’s spending is legal.

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