- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Political candidates can use donations to pay their company or a family member, as long as the campaign services are legitimate and the cost is reasonable, the State Ethics Commission said Wednesday.

The board’s unanimous opinion applies only to future spending. It is not retroactive.

Basically, donor-paid services “can’t be a sham,” said agency attorney Michael Burchstead.

The advice should be common sense, but it’s important to give guidance to candidates the agency oversees, he said.

At issue is a law barring candidates and officeholders from using donations for personal benefit. While noting the law isn’t specific, the opinion presumes legislators did not intend an outright ban on payments to candidates’ businesses, family businesses or individual family members.

“If read too stridently, it can lead to some absurdities in application,” the opinion reads. “If a candidate or his family owns a printing shop, a catering business, or a cleaning service, we do not read the ethics act as forcing the candidate to employ the services of a competitor.”

But the commission also recognizes such payments are ripe for abuse.

The opinion specifies that spouses can’t be paid for consulting if they’re not professional political advisers, and payments for service must correspond with what other businesses charge. Any overpayment would be considered illegal.

“If normal fair market value is $10 an hour, you can’t pay someone $1,000 to make phone calls for a couple of days,” Burchstead said.

Candidates must be able to verify payments are legit. That includes receipts or, when paying wages, documents detailing the work performed.

The commission’s opinion follows a similar one issued last December by the attorney general’s office. Solicitor David Pascoe had requested the opinion amid his investigation into possible Statehouse corruption.

The case stems from the prosecution of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Citing a conflict, Attorney General Alan Wilson picked Pascoe in 2014 to lead the investigation into Harrell, who ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign-spending violations, resigned and pledged to cooperate in any ongoing investigations.

After Harrell’s plea, the State Law Enforcement Division released a heavily redacted investigative report, citing a public-records-law provision that exempts information to be used in a likely law enforcement action.

No other lawmakers have been charged, but the probe is ongoing.

In issuing its advice, the Ethics Commission intentionally made no reference to the investigation or the attorney general’s December opinion.

Currently, the State Ethics Commission oversees the campaign filings of all officeholders except legislators. That changes next year, when a law passed last month expands the agency’s authority and restructures the board. House and Senate ethics panels will no longer investigate their own members.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide