SC public officials owe millions in unpaid ethics fines - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

SC public officials owe millions in unpaid ethics fines

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

A review of ethics fines has found a total of 413 elected officials, lobbyists, and political groups who owe the State Ethics Commission more than $2.6 million in unpaid ethics fines.

The bulk of the groups were fined after ethics commissioners found them guilty of failing to file ethics forms on time.

State Ethics laws require elected officials and candidates for office to file a statement of economic interest form annually and when they initially file for office. The law also requires officials and candidates to file quarterly campaign disclosures so the public knows who's paying politicians and where those contributions are going. Not filing the forms results in a late filing penalty of $100 for each violation, then $100 a day fine for each count after that.

WHO OWES THE MOST

During this investigation, we broke the ethics debtors list into two categories: officials currently in office and those out of office and candidates who were never elected. Our analysis shows 38 currently elected officials owe the State Ethics Commission a total of $387,707.24 and another 94 former officials and former candidates who owe $2,118,981.74.

Here is a list of the currently elected officials who owe fines:

Midlands Debtors on the list:
-Kelvin Washington — Richland County Council: $11,100
-Samuetta Marshall — Orangeburg County Coroner: $10,328.41 (Marshall had her fines reduced to $2,000 and paid that in February 2014)
-Sam Davis — Columbia City Council: $5,800
-Kenneth Lytch — Lynchburg Town Council: $5,400
-Thomas Gardner — Kershaw County Council: $5,000
-Sharon Holloway — Saluda County School Board: $5,000
-Carolina Richardson — Sumter County Treasurer: $5,000
-Steve Cain — Batesburg-Leesville Councilman: $4,087.44
-Jo Ann Owens — Orangeburg County Elections Commission: $3,500
-William D. Porter — Ridgeway Councilman: $2,200
-Thomas E. Baker III — LLR Funeral Services Board (Kershaw County): $1,300

Other Debtors on the list:
-Ed Robinson — Florence City Council: $48,071.40
-Norman Jackson, Sr. — Richland County Council: $35,100
-James "Barkley" Ramsey — Fairfield County Coroner: $24,081.15
-Sammy Tucker, Jr. — Kershaw County Council: $23,100
-Terrance Tindal — Summerton Town Council: $21,500
-Christopher Collins — Charleston County School Board: $15,400
-Frank Wright — Berkeley County School Board: $15,100
-Timothy Craig Ascue — Charleston County School Board: $13,300
-Clarence Joe — Timmonsville Town Council: $12,544.51

FINDING THE DEBTORS

We spent weeks combing through the debtors' list, separating the debtors into categories and confirming current debt totals with the ethics commission. From there, WIS set out to talk with those who owe the most to find out why they haven't paid the fines and whether they planned to pay their debt.

ANTHONY BROWN — CHARLESTON COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT 2 CONSTITUENT BOARD

The currently elected official with the highest unpaid ethics fines is Anthony Brown, a Charleston County School District 2 Constituent Board member, according to the list. Ethics commissioners charged Brown with failing to file his Statement of Economic Interest forms in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, and the online database shows Brown still has not filed for these years. Brown currently owes the state $55,300.

Ethics records show Brown filed his SEI for 2012 on Nov. 15, 2012. The forms are due annually by March 30 at noon. Brown's 2012 SEI was more than eight months late. He was charged a $100 late filing fine and accrued $100 a day fines for each day it wasn't turned in. Brown's 2013 SEI filing wasn't submitted to the commission until May 9, 2013, which was 40 days late.

WIS tried to use the Charleston County School District's online contact information for Brown to request an interview with him to include him in this report. The phone number listed on Brown's contact form was not his number, according to the woman who answered when we called March 7. The address listed for Brown is not his current address. On March 12, WIS drove to Charleston County to reach out to Brown at a public meeting, where he was scheduled to preside.

Just before the meeting, we tried to ask Brown questions about his ethics fines.

"Nah, no. I don't want to talk about that," Brown said as he walked away from WIS staff to take his seat at the board table.

WIS pressed Brown again and asked if he intended to pay his $55,300 fine.

"What do you think," Brown responded.

WIS walked out of the board room after questioning Brown to return just before the meeting was scheduled to start. When WIS went into the room to set up the camera, Brown ordered WIS staff out.

"If you want me to throw you out of here, then I'm going to throw you out," Brown said as he got out of his board chair and walked toward WIS staff.

"You better go ahead—don't put me on camera, I'm not kidding," Brown said.

At this point, Brown got physical and pushed the WIS camera equipment and reporter Jody Barr into a door and against a wall.

"Look, I had a long day today, just go ahead man, okay," Brown said.

WIS crew called 911 and filed an assault complaint against Brown, but chose not to press charges. Brown would not answer questions about his fines or whether he intends to pay them.

TORLANDO CHILDRESS — RICHLAND ONE SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATE

Torlando Childress, of Eastover, ran for the Richland County School District One's Board of Trustees, but lost his bid for the position. Ethics records show Childress failed to file ethics forms related to his candidacy and has racked up $214,258 in unpaid ethics fines. Childress tops the debtors' list with the most fines of any current or former official in the state.

WIS found Childress at his Eastover home Feb. 19 to question him about his fines.

Childress answered his door, but wouldn't give details about his violations and fines. He said he was "working on" paying his ethics fines. 

As for what happened for him to rack up the large fine, Childress said it was a "long story."

Childress would not offer any further comment.

RICHARD JOHNSON — EASTOVER TOWN COUNCILMAN

Richard Johnson served on Eastover's town council from 2000 until 2006 and was paid $100 each month during his time in office. In 2009, Johnson told WIS his unpaid ethics fines totaled more than $700,000. Today, through appeals to the State Ethics Commission, Johnson's the second-highest ethics debtor in the state at $163,200.

NORMAN JACKSON, JR. — RICHLAND COUNTY COUNCIL CHAIRMAN

The most powerful councilman in Richland County, Norman Jackson, Jr., owes the State Ethics Commission $35,100 and is the third-highest debtor in the state. Ethics Commission records show Jackson's failed to file nine quarterly Campaign Disclosure forms and one late Campaign Disclosure form. Jackson owes, according to the Commission, a total of $45,000 in unpaid ethics fines.

The Commission said Jackson was warned that a reduction in his fines would not be considered until he filed the missing CD forms and "provided a bank statement showing when the account was closed," the Commission wrote in an email to WIS. Commission records show Jackson still has not filed the nine missing quarterly reports and filed his missing CD form the day after WIS contacted him to request an interview for this investigation.

KELVIN WASHINGTON — RICHLAND COUNTY COUNCILMAN

Richland County Councilman Kelvin Washington owes $11,100 in ethics fines that the Commission says have not been paid. On Sept. 18, 2012, the Ethics Commission charged Washington with failing to file his 2010 Campaign Disclosure form and charged him $300. The following month, Commission records show a certified letter sent to Washington's home was returned "unclaimed." Days later, Washington files his 2010 CD form, but does not pay the $5,600 fine attached to his violation of the ethics law.

On March 20, 2013, the Commission charged Washington again with two additional counts of failing to file ethics forms for July and October 2009. On Aug. 15, 2012, the Commission publicly reprimanded Washington, fined him a total of $10,100 and ordered a judgment filed against him in Richland County.

By Jan. 14, Washington's fines climbed to $11,100.

WIS attempted to contact Washington on Feb. 17 to request an interview concerning this investigation, but Washington never responded. However, WIS found him at a Richland County Council meeting the next day. Washington would not speak with WIS before going into an economic development meeting. When he left that meeting, WIS tried to speak with him, but Washington started a phone conversation and asked WIS to wait.

WIS waited 7 minutes for Washington to finish his call before he walked past WIS toward council chambers.

"Give me your contact information, and I will get my attorney and I'll get with you," Washington said.

WIS attempted to ask Washington questions about his ethics fines, but he said he was "busy right now" as he walked toward the stairwell that leads to the county council chambers.

WIS met Washington as he took his seat. Washington was not on his phone at that point. WIS gave him contact information to get in touch with WIS about the story, so he could offer his point of view before WIS reported this story.

As of this report, Kelvin Washington has not responded.

SAM DAVIS — COLUMBIA CITY COUNCIL

Columbia City Councilman Sam Davis owes $5,800, according to the debtors' list. Davis racked up the fines after filing his ethics forms late and picking up $100 a day fines after failing to file his forms. Davis admitted he missed deadlines, but blamed the mistake on his campaign staff, which Davis said was responsible for keeping track of his campaign forms.

Still, Davis said he took responsibility for the issues.

JAMES "BARKLEY" RAMSEY — FAIRFIELD COUNTY CORONER

The Fairfield County Coroner owes the fourth-highest fines in the state with $24,081.15 owed to the State Ethics Commission. The Commission charged Barkley Ramsey in September 2012 with two counts of failure to file Statement of Economic Interest forms for 2010 and 2011. Commission records show two certified letters sent to Ramsey's home address and to the coroner's office were never returned.

Two months after charging Ramsey, he filed his SEI forms Nov. 5, 2012, but did not pay the $10,000 late filing fines. Ethics commissioners filed a judgment against Ramsey in Fairfield County and had the state Revenue Department garnish Ramsey's salary in order to force him to repay his ethics fines.

"It was a mistake I found made back in 2010. As of September 13 (2013), it was $24,647. As of today, it's down to $24,080. It's being deducted out of my paycheck and being paid," Ramsey said.

Ramsey said he planned to pay the fines before the DOR intercepted his paychecks, "but this was the easiest way now, so I know it's getting paid without a problem."

TERRANCE TINDAL — SUMMERTON TOWN COUNCILMAN

Summerton Town Councilman Terrance Tindal owes the state $21,500 in unpaid ethics fines and is planning to run for mayor next month. Tindal did not file SEI forms in 2010, 2011 and 2012. In May 2013, the Ethics Commission publicly reprimanded Tindal and fined him $21,500. The Commission also filed a judgment against Tindal in Clarendon County.

WIS tried to contact Tindal on his public email address in February, but he never responded. WIS met him at the Summerton Town Hall on March 11 to talk with him about his fines and failure to follow the ethics laws.

"I just recently found that I owe the money, and I already contacted the South Carolina Ethics Commission and it's being handled at this point," Tindal said.

Tindal would not tell WIS what he meant by "being handled."

"It was nothing I ignored. I was not aware. I'm a newcomer, and I was not fully aware of filing the ethics report," Tindal explained. "I thought it was something I filed at that particular time for the campaign, and I did not know I was supposed to file every year."

The Ethics Commission sent Tindal certified letters to notify him when he missed the deadlines each time he was supposed to file.

"I made a mistake. I apologize for the mistake. It's being handled at this particular time," Tindal said.

RICHARD JOHNSON — EASTOVER TOWN COUNCIL

Richard Johnson owes $163,200 in unpaid ethics fines and said he'll never be able to pay what he owes. Johnson said he filed his ethics forms with the town's elections commission and never filed them with the state.

"I won't ever be able to pay it," Johnson said. "It's just simple paperwork that got mistracked or whatever."

FORCING DEBTORS OUT OF OFFICE

State law gives the State Ethics Commission three ways to collect unpaid fines: judgments, certified letters requesting payment, and to send the debt information to state revenuers for collection. Outside of those options, the commission's director Herb Hayden said there wasn't anything else available to force debtors to pay up, and there's no incentive to do so. 

"That's the reason for the debtors' list is to inform the public of the fact that these particular officials have—do owe fines and some ways to try to possibly embarrass them and to get them to comply and pay the fine," Hayden said.

Hayden asked House budget writers to include a provision in the 2014 state budget that would prevent currently elected officials from running for re-election if they owe fines to the State Ethics Commission. The proviso, according to Hayden, has survived the House and is headed to the Senate for a vote.

SECTION 107 - R52-STATE ETHICS COMMISSION

107.1 ADD (Candidate Indebtedness) WMC: ADD new proviso to direct that for a candidate to qualify to run in any primary, special or general election, they must not owe the State Ethics Commission, or the House or Senate Ethics Committees any money. Prohibit an elected official who is authorized to receive statements of intention of candidacy from accepting such statement unless they confirm through the State Ethics Commission, or the House or Senate Ethics Committees, as appropriate, that the candidate is free of debt to the Ethics Commission, or the House or Senate Ethics Committees . Direct that if the candidate's name inadvertently appears on the ballot, the election official must not certify the candidate following the election.

"I think it'll put them on notice that there is some teeth in that particular section of the law and prevent them from being a candidate and being re-elected," said Hayden.

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