Robert Ford resigns from state Senate, could face criminal charges
COLUMBIA — State Sen. Robert Ford left the Senate under pressure Friday, and his troubles are far from over.
Ford quotes over the years
Charleston state Sen. Robert Ford’s long career in Lowcountry politics came to an abrupt end Friday when he resigned his seat in the middle of a Statehouse hearing into alleged ethics violations.Never shy in speaking his mind during his two decades in Columbia, here are some notable comments from those years.“I’m a great senator and a great human being, and most of the people in the district know that.”“Every time I run I get that big old margin with little or no money. The only way I lose is if I mess up, and I’m not planning on doing that.”— Ford after defending his seat in a challenge from Tim Scott, November 1996.“Let’s try to come together to try and love our citizens, to try to love our state.”— On the occasion of Republicans using their majority to allegedly oust blacks and Democrats from local boards and commissions, February 1995. “My hair was real thick back then, and that helped me out a lot.”— Ford talking about his Afro haircut on the 30th anniversary of the civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Ala., in 1965.His Afro “served as a cushion, and if it weren’t for that cushion, I probably would have been dead,” he said of police beatings.“The white male is accustomed to being given everything on a silver platter. That which was not given to him, he inherited from another white male, who probably came by it through unscrupulous means. The white male has historically been greedy, selfish and evil.”— From a letter he wrote on the “angry white male,” May 1995.“People can read the letter and say ‘he’s a maniac’ or maybe ‘he’s got some good points,’ ” Ford said afterward.“You don’t want no nut carrying a gun, or do you?”— Ford, during the concealed-weapons-bill debate of the 1990s, speaking to pro-permit senators.“She carried the ball to the one-yard line; other women have to score the touchdown.”— Ford in organizing a pro-Shannon Faulkner rally in the wake of her failed effort to become the first woman at The Citadel.He called Faulkner the “Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod-Bethune, Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks of our time.”“I hate the water, but I love the history.”— Ford, appearing uneasy on his feet on choppy seas during a media boat trip to the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley wreck site four miles offshore.“Charleston has got some of the meanest-spirited people in the whole state. As soon as some blacks get in office, people go crazy.”— Ford criticizing talk radio after he became the subject of calls for allegedly driving too fast on Interstate 26 toward Columbia.“I have visited many places and have seen the love that white Southerners have for the Confederacy,” he said in a letter explaining his support for Confederate-themed license plates. “It is a deep-rooted love that is not going to change.”Efforts to deny whites their Confederate past “will only further divide the races.”“They are making this the No. 1 concern in the black community, and it’s not.”— Ford on the NAACP travel and tourism boycott of the state over the Confederate flag. Ford said a bigger concern is getting more black judges elected.“I have been elected to public office since 1974 in one capacity or another. To date, I still don’t have anything named after me. My constituents keep asking the question. They want to know, ‘When are you going to get yours?’”— Ford in a 2002 letter to fellow Charleston County lawmakers asking why he hasn’t been recognized for his political efforts.
The veteran politician who wasn’t afraid to stir the pot in his youth but became more of a statesman later, now faces a possible criminal investigation for the ethics charges that drove him from office.
Just hours before the Senate Ethics Committee issued a finding Friday that Ford had violated eight categories of state campaign finance and disclosure laws, he opted to quit rather than continue.
The State Law Enforcement Division will investigate Robert Ford’s campaign and report to the S.C. attorney general, who then will decide whether to pursue a criminal prosecution.Those hoping to succeed Ford must think fast: Filing for the vacant Senate 42 seat opens June 21 and closes at noon July 1.Any Senate 42 primaries would be held on Aug. 13, while the special election itself will be Oct. 1.
Hours after that, the Senate panel then referred Ford’s case to S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who then asked the State Law Enforcement Division to launch a criminal probe.
It all marked a sudden and inglorious end for one of the Lowcountry’s most established and colorful political figures.
In his exit letter to the Senate, Ford, D-Charleston, never mentioned the ethical hornet’s nest surrounding him.
“It is because of my health and with a heavy heart and great sadness that I announce my resignation,” he wrote to Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell.
Ford spent Thursday night in a Columbia hospital with chest pains brought on by the stress of the first day of his hearing, said his lawyer, William Runyon of Charleston.
In an open letter to friends and neighbors, Ford, 64, said, “If I was ten years younger, I would stay and fight (the charges). But at this point in my life, I feel this is the best decision for everyone.”
Ford began his political career as an outspoken black leader who butted heads with Mayor Joe Riley and others in Charleston’s political establishment, later evolving into a leader who touted his close ties with influential Republican Senate colleagues.
He was first elected to Charleston City Council in 1974, and to the state Senate in 1992.
Friends and former foes reacted with a mixture of silence and sadness, and many wished him the best, particularly as he seeks to get well.
Charleston County Democratic Chairman Richard Hricik said Ford “many times did things that won him great approval from many Democrats, but also did things that caused great controversy. I think in some ways, he has always been his own man.”
Maurice Washington, who served with Ford on Charleston City Council and later ran against Ford in the Senate, called Ford a legendary figure.
“I think when the history books are written, Senator Ford will be proven to be an incredible adaptor,” Washington said. “No one adapted his or her politics for the good of the citizenry more than Senator Ford.”
Friday’s drama came as the Ethics Committee found that Ford used campaign donations for personal expenses, misrepresented his spending on campaign-disclosure reports and failed to report numerous donations and personal loans.
He then altered copies of financial documents that he submitted, according to the “Findings of Fact” the committee released Friday afternoon.
The committee acknowledged that Ford’s choice of “immediate and irrevocable resignation” was tantamount to expulsion, which would have been the harshest sanction the Senate could have pursued.
Runyon told the committee just before it went behind closed doors to discuss the case Friday, “We are not looking for due process anymore. We’re looking for as much mercy as we can get.”
He also said he doesn’t expect anyone to find fraud, but they could find actions that required sanctions.
Runyon said Ford’s problem stemmed from poor record keeping. “Nobody would accuse Robert Ford of having any kind of system,” he said. “A lot of folks know how to serve the community but don’t know how to keep their records straight.”
Lyn Odom, the lawyer representing the Senate Ethics Commission, said all the documents related to Ford’s case will be available online as soon as staff members have the time to redact personal information from them.
On Thursday, Ford began the fight for his political career when he faced allegations that he spent campaign funds on personal expenses, including purchases at adult stores.
Ford said the purchases were gag gifts for campaign workers, and the purchases were legal.
Ford’s downfall also coincides as ethics reform continues to loom as one of the biggest — and still unresolved — issues in this year’s session.
Gov. Nikki Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey said, “While we appreciate Senator Robert Ford’s service to South Carolina, this is a real-world example of why ethics reform is so important.”
Haley has called for House and Senate lawmakers to dissolve their ethics committees and give that power to the State Ethics Commission — essentially ending their ability to police themselves.
That provision has been stripped from a pending ethics bill, which disappointed some conservatives, such as Ashley Landess, head of the conservative S.C. Policy Council.
Landess praised the Senate Ethics Committee for doing its work in public, and said public scrutiny on lawmakers is more intense than ever.
“They knew they had to do something,” she said. “Was Senator Ford the sacrificial lamb? I don’t know, but it’s interesting that they’re jumping up and taking on someone who is not in a leadership position.”
His exit also illustrates the odd set of dominoes that has befallen Lowcountry politics. Ford had an unusually close relationship to McConnell, the former Senate president pro tem Glenn, but the Charleston Republican saw his clout drop when he stepped down to become lieutenant governor.
McConnell’s move was triggered by the state’s last big campaign-finance debacle, when Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned because of improprieties in how he reported and handled his campaign cash.
And Ford’s resignation will result in yet another high-profile special election in the Lowcountry, after the 2012 race for McConnell’s Senate 41 seat and this year’s race to fill U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s former congressional seat.
Filing for the Senate 42 seat could open on June 21 and close July 1, State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said. Any primaries would be held on Aug. 13, and the special election itself would be held Oct. 1.
The black-majority seat contains portions of downtown Charleston, West Ashley and North Charleston, and a small slice of southern Dorchester County.