COLUMBIA (AP) — Sen. Robert Ford’s attorney said Wednesday that ethics allegations against the Charleston Democrat should be thrown out because he didn’t realize he was under investigation.
Attorney William Runyon said Ford thought Senate Ethics Committee staff called to help him get his campaign filings in order, so attorney-client privilege should apply, and Ford should get a chance to fix his filings first. Ford, “who thought he was talking to a lawyer and receiving advice, was actually being investigated,” Runyon wrote in his response to the committee’s complaint. He added that Ford was not properly notified.
The committee found probable cause last month to support allegations that Ford committed multiple violations of state ethics laws over the last four years. Ford is accused of using campaign donations for personal expenses, misrepresenting expenses as campaign-related, reporting incorrect amounts for what he spent, and failing to report numerous expenses, donations and personal loans. State law limits ethics complaints to four years.
A public hearing on the allegations is scheduled for May 30-31.
The complaint gave no specifics. Documents supporting the allegations aren’t public.
Runyon told The Associated Press he still doesn’t know precisely what Ford is accused of doing. Since he doesn’t have a list, he said, he’s guessing after receiving 5,000 pages of subpoenaed documents.
He gave an example of a utility bill for Ford’s Charleston home, paid from his campaign account. Runyon contends most of the home functions as Ford’s political office, so it’s not a personal expense.
“He occupies one bedroom,” Runyon wrote in his response.
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.
Ford paid the state commission a $400 fine earlier this week for late campaign filings connected to his unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial bid. He is in the process of fixing his reports to show a zero balance of that closed account. He also had to write two, $150 checks to reimburse contributors for over-the-limit donations, said Herb Hayden, the commission’s executive director.
Runyon argues the Senate Ethics Committee should have similarly handled the problems in his Senate seat filings. Let him pay a fee and fix them, he said.
“I’m not suggesting that Sen. Ford’s records are in pristine condition,” he said.
Ford, 64, has been in the Senate since 1993.
Beyond his campaign account, the committee subpoenaed records from Ford’s personal checking account and two community development groups Ford runs, Runyon said, questioning whether that’s within the inquiry’s jurisdiction.
“The currents in the water now are for ethics reform, and I get that,” Runyon said.
An ethics reform bill passed by the House and up for debate on the Senate floor includes changing who handles the campaign filings and complaints against legislators. Critics say legislators can’t adequately police themselves. How that would change is a key difference in the chambers’ two versions.