COLUMBIA — The attorney for Sen. Robert Ford said Thursday the ethics charges against the outspoken, 64-year-old Charleston Democrat come because of unintentional bookkeeping errors.
William Runyon said it’s difficult for a “citizen legislator” such as Ford to keep up with the unwieldy process of campaign paperwork.
“All the paperwork you’ve got to go through and economic interest forms you have to file – if you don’t have an accountant and lawyer to do the paperwork, well-intentioned errors are made,” Runyon said. “It was much simpler when he first got elected.”
His comments come a day after the Senate Ethics Committee found probable cause to support allegations that Ford, a senator since 1993, violated seven areas of state ethics laws over four years. He’s accused of using campaign donations for personal expenses, misrepresenting expenses as campaign-related, and reporting incorrect amounts for what he spent, as well as failing to report numerous expenses, donations and personal loans.
The sworn complaint, addressed to Ford, provides no specifics. Documents supporting the allegations aren’t public. Runyon said he hasn’t seen them yet either.
But he said he knows of two examples – a drug-store purchase and a loan Ford took out from the National Bank of South Carolina that lack clear connections to his campaigning.
According to Ford’s latest campaign disclosure, he has $37,200 cash available in his campaign account and owes $18,000 on a loan.
The New Orleans native is one of the Legislature’s true characters, a politician who’s unafraid to speak his mind or split with his party.
That includes proposing legislation in 2009 banning profanity-laced songs and droopy pants in an effort to ignite debate about the behavior of young people, particularly in the African-American community. The former civil rights worker, who boasts of being arrested 73 times, readily admitted he was picking on young black men, calling the style that mimics prison garb a disgrace.
In 2010, Ford ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination on a two-issue platform of bringing back video poker and supporting tax credits for private school tuition.
Last week, he publicly railed against fellow senators and Boeing lobbyists for being left out of the loop on the incentives package for the company’s expansion plans in North Charleston. He issued a warning not to disrespect him again.
A former car salesman, Ford’s main job is being a senator. Legislators’ salary is just $10,400 a year, though mileage reimbursements and daily pay for meals and lodging during session push that to more than $20,000. He’s also done campaign consulting work.
Under Senate rules, Ford has until May 2 to respond to the complaint. After a public hearing, the committee’s options include dismissal, public reprimand, fines of up to $2,000 per violation, and expulsion. Any allegations of criminal violations could be forwarded to the attorney general’s office for investigation.
The rare finding of probable cause followed a preliminary investigation, which the committee conducted in secret.
Runyon said the complaint caught Ford by surprise. Ford thought he’d provided the committee with the appropriate answers and documentation over weeks of back-and-forth questions, he said.
Under current law, House and Senate ethics committees handle complaints and oversee filings of their own members, while the state Ethics Commission is responsible for all non-legislative campaigns. Runyon said questions over Ford’s filings between July 2009 and this month arose during an administrative review, rather than a complaint.
“It was a bureaucratic review of ‘this doesn’t match with that’ – like filing tax returns and getting an audit,” he said.
Ford’s faced allegations before. And Runyon’s represented him each time, dating to 1977 forgery charges when Ford was on Charleston City Council. Ford was suspended amid allegations he signed people’s names to an annexation petition. But he was reinstated and given back pay after a jury acquitted him. He served on the city council from 1974 until his election to Senate.
In 2001, the state Supreme Court ruled the state Ethics Commission had no power to investigate Ford. The commission had tried to scrutinize a $5,000 donation Ford received to help defeat a 1998 school bond referendum.
“I’m the fireman,” Runyon said, noting he’s been Ford’s lawyer for 36 years. “It doesn’t pay much, but the work’s steady.”