What's next

The Senate ethics panel will hold a hearing on the allegations against state Sen. Robert Ford and will determine whether he broke the law.

A date for that hearing has not been set. Before the hearing, Ford has the right to file a response to the complaint within 15 calendar days. He and/or his private attorney also will have the chance to examine all evidence related to the allegations in the panel's possession.

The committee could issue several penalties against Ford if it finds any violations, up to and including recommending expulsion.

Other possible sanctions include:

Issuing a public reprimand.

Requiring the payment of a civil penalty not exceeding $2,000 for each non-technical violation.

Requiring the forfeiture of all gifts, receipts or profits obtained in violation of ethics law.

In the case of alleged criminal violations, referring the matter to the S.C. attorney general for investigation.

If the committee finds Ford did not violate the law, it will dismiss the allegations.

— State Sen. Robert Ford has been accused of committing ethics violations over the course of about four years, including inappropriately spending campaign funds and failing to report how the money came in and went out.

Robert Ford

Former member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who worked with Martin Luther King Jr.

An activist who was arrested dozens of times during Civil Rights Era.

Charleston councilman from 1975 to 1992.

State senator since 1993.

Helped broker the compromise on moving the Confederate battle flag from the top of Statehouse dome to the grounds in 2000.

The Senate Ethics Committee announced Wednesday that after an initial inquiry, it found probable cause to support allegations that the Charleston Democrat violated seven areas of state ethics law. He will face a public hearing before his peers.

A spokesman for the Senate Democratic Caucus said Ford would have no immediate comment on the accusations.

The Senate ethics panel, which investigates allegations against members of the upper chamber, is made up of 10 of Ford's fellow senators.

In its announcement, the committee said the alleged misdeeds occurred from July 10, 2009, to April 10 of this year.

During that time, the panel found that there is probable cause that Ford:

-- Used campaign funds to defray personal expenses unrelated to his office.

-- Misrepresented the amounts of various expenditures on his disclosure reports such that they didn't match up with the actual spending reflected in his campaign bank statements.

-- Misrepresented the purpose of some campaign spending to make it seem as though it was related to his office when it was, in fact, personal spending.

-- Made cash withdrawals of more than $100 from his campaign account on several occasions.

-- Failed to report numerous campaign contributions

-- Did not report some spending from his campaign account

-- Failed to report some campaign loans and campaign loan repayments.

The allegations against Ford come as the Legislature is weighing several bills that would overhaul aspects of state ethics law in the wake of several high-profile ethics dust-ups.

A common element of many of the reform bills is the proposed elimination of House and Senate ethics committees.

The measures would move the responsibility of investigating and sanctioning lawmakers to non-legislative entities, ensuring that legislators would no longer sit in judgment of their own.

Ford, 64, has faced ethics allegations in the past.

In 2001 the state Supreme Court ruled that only fellow senators could investigate Ford for alleged funding improprieties.

The State Ethics Commission had tried to investigate Ford's handling of a $5,000 donation he used to defeat the 1998 Charleston County school bond vote.

In 1977, Ford was suspended from his Charleston City Council seat and charged with forgery. The moves came after the names of dead people showed up on petitions in an annexation election. Ford was acquitted, then reinstated to the council and given back pay.

EDITOR'S NOTE:

Earlier versions of this story had an incorrect year for Ford's suspension from City Council. The Post and Courier regrets the error.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephen largen.