COLUMBIA - South Carolina's chief prosecutor and a champion of statewide ethics reform has accepted about $75,000 in over-the-legal-limit contributions from at least 32 donors.
A Post and Courier review of Attorney General Alan Wilson's public campaign finance disclosure reports also has found that since 2009 the attorney general has accepted at least 105 contributions worth about $88,000 that were not initially disclosed on quarterly campaign finance disclosure forms - about $20,000 more than he has previously acknowledged.
The attorney general has amended campaign finance reports so many times that one critic called the number of changes "unprecedented" in modern South Carolina politics.
Campaign finance rules exist to limit the influence any one donor can have over a candidate. Further, disclosure laws allow voters to know who a candidate's donors are and identify potential conflicts of interest before they cast their vote.
Improving how ethics-related laws work is part of a statewide push from S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, the attorney general and lawmakers. The attorney general has toured the state to champion a stronger, streamlined system to root out and penalize corruption.
Wilson's infractions could carry fines up to 500 times the value of an individual contribution and jail time. But violators are rarely, if ever, prosecuted.
Wilson has admitted to problems with his campaign finance filings but never fully disclosed totals. His campaign has filed dozens of amendments to the State Ethics Commission website to correct issues.
Wilson was unavailable for comment because the National Guardsman has duty. Richard Quinn, Wilson's campaign spokesman, characterized the violations as technical. Some involve little-known rules regarding the timing of accepting a donation, he said.
Quinn said the errors were made in the early weeks of the campaign by campaign volunteers and a financial consultant, whom Quinn would not name. Wilson has raised more than $2 million over two campaign cycles. Errors, he said, are easy to make in the "fog of a campaign."
Wilson's campaign and accountants have been working to correct all errors. Wilson's team plans to file an amendment this month that Quinn believes should put to rest any concerns about the account. When over-the-limit contributions have been discovered, Quinn said, Wilson has returned those funds.
Quinn said that unnamed people were looking to create a "smokescreen" for other issues. Asked if he meant House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, Quinn would not say. But Harrell and Wilson have feuded openly for months, as the attorney general pursues an ethics-related case against the powerful lawmaker, who has been accused of using campaign funds for personal use.
"Without pointing fingers at anybody specifically, we all know what's going on here," Quinn said. Greg Foster, a Harrell spokesman, declined to comment.
Quinn said that no one would have found out about Wilson's campaign account issues if the attorney general had not filed amended reports.
"I hope people don't ignore the fact that none of those errors constitute misuse of campaign funds," he said. "(Wilson) does not reimburse himself for anything. ... The kind of errors they've all been digging up are immediately corrected and are innocent human errors."
Wilson, who is up for re-election this year, has made statewide ethics reform one of his top priorities.
But questions about Wilson's campaign account have dogged the attorney general recently. In March 2013, he admitted to $134,000 in donations and expenses that he failed to disclose and vowed to correct the mistakes. Of that amount, $66,890 were donations. That amount does not include additional donations uncovered by The Post and Courier.
At the time, Wilson's campaign said the unreported funds were the result of "simple clerical or scrivener's errors," according to The Associated Press.
The data also show that Wilson received over-the-limit donations from lawyer Richard Breibart, who was convicted last month for stealing millions from his clients. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Ervin also contributed over the $3,500 legal limit, among others.
The State Ethics Commission, which oversees campaign finance infractions, gives wide latitude to candidates to file amended campaign disclosure reports. Generally, a formal complaint must be filed for the commission to pursue serious charges or fines.
Cathy Hazelwood, the commission's deputy director and general counsel, said she can neither confirm nor deny that a formal complaint has been lodged against Wilson.
Allegations against local officials for violating state ethics law would usually go to a local solicitor. For a statewide office, it would be handed over to the attorney general.
As for who would prosecute the attorney general, Hazelwood said she did not know. "I have no idea, it would be the first time it would happen," she said.
Ethics in need of reform
South Carolina has had several high-profile ethics cases in recent years. Former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, resigned after an ethics probe revealed that he bought sex toys and other items with his campaign funds. Former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard used campaign funds to buy his wife clothes, among other personal items. He was also forced from office.
Comptroller Richard Eckstrom recently saw campaign finance charges against him dismissed in connection with a trip he took with his girlfriend to the 2012 GOP convention.
Campaign finance disclosure laws are generally less enforced across the country than offenses when elected officials misuse those funds, said Edwin Bender, the executive director of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Still, he said, they are important.
"The public needs to understand whether there might be back room deals, campaign donors getting favors," he said. "(Campaign finance laws) do not have the kinds of sticks that are necessary to get lawmakers to pay attention. They often pay lip service to this. The levels of hubris are huge among elected officials and you see that ... they don't care what the public thinks until election time."
An ethics reform package is now being considered by the House.
Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, the House majority leader, wants to reform campaign finance law. But stricter penalties aren't the way to go, he said. Because each campaign reporting infraction is considered a crime, they are rarely prosecuted, he said. The law should differentiate between those who intend to conceal and those who make clerical mistakes.
But backlash to the idea has been fierce, and he said it won't be included in the final bill.
"It would be a good way to differentiate between a criminal act and a technical error," Bannister said. "Invariably you mess something up. (Filing an amendment) should not be an admission of having committed a crime."
Quinn said that in Wilson's case, the attorney general wants to clear up any potential impropriety.
"The more important standard is Alan does not have an extravagant lifestyle," Quinn said. "The reasons he's found a lot of errors is because he's looking for them."
John Crangle, the director of Common Cause South Carolina, said no one has accused Wilson of the much more serious offense of benefiting personally from campaign contributions. Still, he said, the quantity of mistakes that Wilson has admitted to in public filings is "unprecedented" in modern South Carolina politics.
"There's no evidence that Wilson misused campaign money. It looks to me like it's extremely negligent and irresponsible management by his campaign staff."
Crangle, one of the state's leading advocates for stronger state ethics laws, said the more troubling aspect is that the man who committed the apparent violations is the state's top law enforcement official who oversees and can prosecute ethics infractions.
"(Wilson) ought to be squeaky clean."?
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
Editor's note: Previous versions of this story miscategorized Wilson's military duty. He is a National Guardsman.