SC Senate’s “first-ever serious (ethics) fine”

In her column Sunday, Cindi Scoppe reported on the SC Senate Ethics Committee’s second public reprimand (the one of Jake Knotts was the first), and “its first-ever serious fine:”

A forgiving law isn’t precisely the problem in the case of Sen. Kent Williams, but his public reprimand points to another significant shortcoming in our ethics and campaign finance law that isn’t getting much attention. Left uncorrected, it could greatly diminish the value of any new reporting requirements the Legislature passes, leaving them dependent on the honesty of the candidates filing the reports.

According to the Senate Ethics Committee, Mr. Williams accepted 15 contributions in excess of the legal maximum of $1,000 for this year’s election. It ordered him to return the extra $12,801 and pay a $5,390.05 fine. The Marion County Democrat, who is running unopposed for his third term, did not contest the charges.

Ten of the illegal contributions were straightforward violations that anyone who looked closely at his campaign reports would have noticed, and probably the result of bad record keeping. But in five cases, Mr. Williams reported that he received two $1,000 checks on the same day from the same donors — one for the 2012 race and one to pay down a 2008 campaign debt — but used all the money for his 2012 campaign. The panel called these “deliberate attempts to mislead the public,” noting that to anyone looking at those reports, “it appears” that the donations were legal.

It’s Mr. Williams’ apparent compliance with the law that makes this case so worrisome. The Ethics Committee discovered the ruse because its attorney noticed that the senator wasn’t reporting enough outstanding debt to justify the repayments; he asked for bank records, which showed the payments hadn’t been made.

It was similar serendipity that led to the reprimand against Mr. Knotts for accepting illegally large donations, misreporting the identities of some donors and not reporting others, and not reporting some expenditures. In that case, it was what appeared to be, but wasn’t, excessive interest income that raised the attorney’s suspicions, leading him to ask for the bank records that revealed unrelated violations…

Cindi suggests random audits to overcome the weakness that the Williams case exposed — that weakness being the assumption that what is put on disclosures is accurate.

6 thoughts on “SC Senate’s “first-ever serious (ethics) fine”

  1. Mark Stewart

    Following Juan on this, it was interesting to see that Sen. Williams is also on the Judiciary committee – like Jake Knotts. That’s an interesting connection. And one worth keeping in mind.

    If the legislature continues on this path, the executive and judicial branches will find themselves freed from their bondage. At least we should all hope.

    A lot of decent legislators are also going to find themselves painted with the brush of corruption if they do not find the strength to clean house.

  2. Bart

    Brad says: October 15, 2012 at 4:53 pm
    Assuming I recall correctly, Kent Williams is the brother of Armstrong Williams, the syndicated columnist we quit running several years before I left the paper…”…

    Yes Brad, you are correct. He is the brother of Armstrong Williams, the syndicated columnist your paper stopped running after it was reported that his PR firm, Ketchum had accepted a contract from the Bush administration to advocate for the “No Child Left Behind” program. If not mistaken, the total amount of the contract was for $1 million and Williams was paid $240k.

    The Obama administration hired Porter Novelli to sell the benefits of the AHA to Americans. The contract was worth over $20 million. Then Andy Griffith was paid to be in an ad advocating for Medicare and Medicaid. Contract worth more than $3 million, not sure who the ad agency was.

    Question. How does this square with you on the ethical side because if I remember correctly, one of the reasons stated for dropping Williams column was his involvement in the promotion of the NCLB program. I understand that a syndicated columnist should reveal certain information but if the same situation were to come up today and if you were still involved with the State, would you still support dropping a columnist for being a paid advocate for a federal government program?

    Have the parameters of what is morally and ethically acceptable been moved further and further to the “no limits” point or are the boundaries still there but not well observed by the media personalities who openly advocate for their causes?

  3. Mark Stewart

    Neither Porter Novelli (a communications firm) nor Andy Griffin (actor) was an editorial columnist.

    Being paid to present or sell a viewpoint is very different from being paid to do so subrosa under the guise of a cultivated independence.

  4. Brad

    It was a mess. A particularly painful mess, as Armstrong pretty much considered us his home paper, which made it all the more regrettable that this happened.

    It’s been long enough that I don’t remember all the details. I’ll see if I can dig up whatever I wrote about it at the time.

  5. Alice Ahern

    Kent Williams runs or oversees the PeeDee Community Action in Marion, SC which handles Fema funds
    and Duke Energy monies for people who are income eligible to receive help with their fuel bills. It is a
    well known fact that any Black person can receive help but not so the white, even though income eligible.
    When white apply they are told that the FEMA funds have not come in or some other excuse and told they have to come back in 3 months, even when they are in need and cannot pay their current bill.


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