The S.C. Senate Ethics Committee has brought a fresh complaint against former Sen. Robert Ford, who resigned eight months ago after he was ensnared in a similar ethics probe.
Ford described himself as a victim of the committee and said the complaint has no merit. He said he closed his campaign account and used the remaining $14,000 for nonprofit work.
"I consider myself the most honest elected official right now in this country," he said, adding that when other senators leave office, "everything in their campaign account, they spend on themselves."
The complaint says a preliminary investigation found probable cause to support allegations that Ford converted campaign funds to personal use and misrepresented expenses on his campaign disclosure forms.
It was signed by the committee chairman, Sen. Luke Rankin and refers to campaign disclosure reports due on July 10 and Oct. 10 of last year - after Ford left office.
Ford, a Charleston Democrat who had served in the Senate almost two decades, resigned in May, as the committee accused him of using campaign money for personal expenses and failing to report numerous expenses, donations and personal loans. Ford also cited his failing health as a reason for stepping down.
The new complaint says Ford has the right to an attorney at the next hearing and that he should respond to the charges within 15 days. Rankin, R-Conway, said he hoped the committee would hold its hearing on the matter "in pretty short order."
Ford said Friday the committee was focusing on him instead of addressing other ethical issues, such as senators' business ties with state government or an ethics reform bill that still lets senators police themselves and lets legislator-lawyers practice before judges they elect.
He also said senators long had helped him navigate the ethics reporting requirement, even hiring a lawyer to straighten out his report. But that practice changed under Rankin.
Ford said he crossed Rankin on an unrelated piece of legislation, "and he said this is going to have a statewide effect on everybody. When I did that, next thing I know is all hell broke loose. Allegation after allegation after allegation."
And Ford said the timing of releasing the new complaint this week was meant to deflect attention from the Senate resuming debate on an ethics bill - a bill that Ford said does not go far enough.
Rankin said he would decline to rebut Ford's comments and instead referred to Ford's late 2013 financial statements on the State Ethics Commission website. Those show an Oct. 21 expense to Nelson Printing Corp. for $4,786; an Oct. 18 expense to Print Shop of West Ashley for $3,516 for birthday card envelopes; and an Oct. 8 expense of $3,535 to the same print shop for 25,000 birthday cards.
"I usually mailed out 2,700 birthday cards a month, but since I left the Senate, for the past eight months, I've been mailing out 500," Ford said, adding that every penny of his campaign account is gone, though he still has a $51,000 debt. His October 2013 filing shows he has a loan balance of $18,000.
Last year, Ford was investigated for allegedly using his campaign account money at adult stores for purchases that Ford said were gag gifts to volunteers, and for paying bills for his car and home expenses. The Senate referred that matter to the S.C. Attorney General's Office, which asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate further. A spokesman for the attorney general said Friday the office still is awaiting SLED's report.
Ford's attorney, William Runyon of Charleston, said Ford's errors were inadvertent and a result of his poor bookkeeping skills. He could face anything from a public reprimand to criminal charges.
Runyon said Friday he has seen the most recent ethics complaint against Ford but couldn't offer much comment.
"They don't have any specifics in there," he said.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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