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Careful Ethics Reporting Helps Officials Avoid Fines

Meghan Walker, executive director of the SC State Ethics Commission, counts two issues as the ones that get candidates running for office into trouble the most — failing to file Statements of Economic Interests on time, and failing to make campaign disclosures in a timely way. Once the documents become overdue, fines can start increasing daily until they hit maximum amounts.

In a year where both types of filings are due, Walker said, if a candidate does nothing, fines can reach a maximum total penalty of $25,000.

“That is $25,000 of your money, not campaign money, not money from your entity, so these fines get really, really steep,” she said. 

Walker addressed the particulars of disclosures for candidates and elected officials in a presentation at the Municipal Association’s 2021 Annual Meeting. The initial Statement of Economic Interest form is due upon registering as a candidate in a partisan election, or before being sworn into office after a nonpartisan election. The form is due every March 30 after the initial filing for current officeholders. 

A Statement of Economic Interest, as noted in SC Code Section 8-13-1120, require candidates and officeholders to disclose the “source, type, amount or value of income … of substantial monetary value received from a governmental entity by the filer or a member of the filer’s immediate family,” such as spouses and dependent children, as well as private income for these people — but not retirement-type deferred compensation. Those filing the forms must also report real estate owned by the family, and gifts received in an official capacity, including transportation, lodging, food or entertainment. 

Quarterly campaign disclosures, meanwhile, have a threshold amount of $500 for the initial campaign disclosure, which applies to funds raised and funds spent. Walker noted that a candidate who raised exactly $250 and spent the entire $250 would have reached total transactions of $500 and would have to file the disclosure on the Ethics Commission’s reporting website within 10 days. After the initial disclosure, campaign disclosures are due the 10th of the month following the end of each quarter until the account is brought down to zero funds, at which time the candidate must file a final report. Candidates must file a pre-election report 15 days before the election showing campaign account activity as of 20 days before the election, even in cases where they have raised no money. 

Those who submit filings with the Ethics Commission can amend them at any time.

“The thing that I want to stress about this the most is to please call us,” Walker said. “I see our mission as assisting those who serve the public, so we aren’t here to try to play ‘gotcha.’” 
Walker discussed the importance of not using any governmental funds, property or time for campaigning, which could include things like a government-issued cell phone, email address, or a city-owned printer. 

“You also can’t, for example, during a city council meeting, say, ‘Hey y’all, I’m enjoying my service on council. I hope you’re proud of the things that I’ve done for you. Remember to vote for me next Tuesday.” 

She also reviewed the ethical violations described in the law beginning with SC Code Section 8-13-700, which prohibits the use of an official position or office for financial gain for public officials or their family members. In cases where conflicts of interest arise, such as when a councilmember must take a vote, the councilmember would need to self-recuse in writing and submit the recusal to the chair of the meeting.

Find more information on reporting requirements and other ethics issues at www.ethics.sc.gov. Find presentation material and recordings for the Annual Meeting online.