COLUMBIA — State Sen. Robert Ford is fighting for his political career amid allegations that he spent money meant for his campaigns for the Senate and for governor at adult stores and for other personal items.
Twelve senators heard allegations Thursday that the Charleston Democrat broke state ethics laws. He is accused of using campaign donations for personal expenses, misrepresenting his spending, failing to report numerous expenses, donations and personal loans, then trying to cover it up. The hearing is to resume today.
Ford’s lawyer, William Runyon, blames Ford’s problem on sloppy bookkeeping by a citizen lawmaker who tries to handle all his business without a staff.
If senators determine that Ford violated the law, he could be reprimanded, fined or expelled from the Senate, where he has served for 20 years. The findings also could be sent to prosecutors to consider criminal charges.
Thursday’s hearing took an odd twist when Lyn Odom, the lawyer representing the Senate Ethics Commission, said bank records show that the debit card linked to one of Ford’s campaign accounts in October was used to spend $82 at a business called The Lion’s Den in Bowman that sells adult books and videos.
A $64 charge in January went to a company called Pleasant Gifts LLC, which operates the Badd Kitty adult stores in Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
Ford said after the hearing that he bought gag gifts at those stores for people who help with some of his community work but refused to be paid money. Small gifts for campaign staffers are allowed under ethics laws.
Odom also said bank records show that the campaign debit card was used to buy Cyvita, pills used for male enhancement that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Ford said somebody used his card fraudulently to buy the pills.
In all, Odom said he found nearly $20,000 that should have gone into Ford’s campaign accounts, but was diverted to his personal accounts.
Ford defended himself in the four-hour hearing. He said he never spent a penny of campaign money on personal items.
He said some checks made out to his political campaigns ended up in his personal accounts because the check writers wanted them to go to the charity work he does — buying air conditioners for the poor, raising diabetes awareness, buying blankets for the homeless or other things.
“You’re making me look like some kind of crook. I don’t like that,” Ford said.
More damaging testimony came later in the hearing. Odom said Ford claimed to spend $6,500 with a man who frames many certificates and other items for the House and Senate. But Don Clark of Art In A Nutshell said he was never paid that much.
“There was a lot of money reported. I never saw those checks,” Clark said.
Odom also produced documents that showed Ford made a car payment with campaign money, when he is allowed to be paid mileage only for official business. Runyon said Ford considered it a legitimate expense because his personal life is so entwined with his political life. He said Odom had not proven that Ford was intentionally trying to defraud anyone.
“We’re talking about intentional misrepresentation and fraud. It is our position that hasn’t been shown,” Runyon said. “It is shown that he has got bad bookkeeping and just a horrible financial mess here.”
Odom reminded senators that it was up to them to figure out what Ford’s intentions were with his spending and accounting.
Several senators urged Ford and his lawyer, when the hearing resumes, to bring in receipts or other documents that could back up how he said he spent his money.
“Attorney Runyon, at some point you must give us some explanation,” said Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins.