COLUMBIA - The State Ethics Commission collected nearly $230,000 in fines last fiscal year, but that's a mere fraction of the nearly $2.5 million that candidates, lobbyists and committees across South Carolina still owe.
The tiny agency with jurisdiction over hundreds of thousands of yearly filings for all offices except legislators relies on fines to fund about a third of its operating costs. But collecting can be difficult, especially from unsuccessful candidates.
Collections through garnished wages, tax refunds and liens accounted for 17 percent of the total fines collected in 2012-13, through programs the state Revenue Department offers all agencies, for a fee. Still, the commission's latest debtors' list is 17 pages long, with fines ranging from $100 to more than $200,000.
"Most people who are going to pay do so voluntarily," said the agency's director, Herb Hayden, adding that most collected fines are between $100 and $400. "With the big dollars, they've just thumbed their nose and said, 'I'm not going to pay it.' "
Five people owe more than $100,000, stemming from forms due as far back as 2002. The largest debt of $214,300 is owed by a 2008 Richland 1 school board candidate. Thirty others, including those vying for city and county councils, sheriffs and mayors - and even a county political party - owe at least $15,000.
Everyone on the list receives a reminder at year's end, before outstanding debts are forwarded to Revenue for collection, which can whittle down fines if there are tax refunds or an employer's check to garnish, Hayden said.
Under state law, people are fined $100 for filing either campaign disclosure or economic interest forms five days late. Once a notice goes out, fines amass daily, up to $5,000 per form. If people don't file required paperwork for several quarters, the fines can really amass, though not to the levels they once did.
Until several years ago, that daily penalty never stopped climbing, which explains those six-figure fines that pre-date the law change.
Hayden said the commission sought it because an ever-rising-fine just wasn't reasonable, especially since the criminal penalty for failure to file - a crime that prosecutors have yet to bother pursuing - already was a $5,000 maximum fine.
People can go through an appeals process to ask the commission's board to lower a fine. Agency staff can't do that, Hayden said.
Former Horry County Council Chairwoman Elizabeth Gilland said the excessive fees are ludicrous and can ruin the lives of folks without any power in Columbia. She owes $45,000 from her 2006 campaign for a case of late paperwork, she said.
Gilland, who served on council for 16 years, said she thought someone turned in her final paperwork. She thought she had the copies, which she stuck in a box and later threw out while trying to de-clutter during a move. When she was fined in 2009, she said, it took her several months to even access the records to her closed bank account, for a campaign that raised less than $20,000.
At 63, she has no way to pay that fine, she said.
"It's stressful. I just don't blow off something like that and ignore it. I think of it every week, and it may keep me from ever serving again," Gilland said.
House and Senate ethics committees also are owed money. By law, they oversee filings by their colleagues and those seeking a seat in their chamber.
The House Ethics Committee plans to take scofflaws to court to collect fines.
Three dozen former incumbents and candidates for the South Carolina House owe a combined $228,400 in fines for late or never-filed forms in 2012 and 2013, according to the legislative panel's latest report, dated Sept. 30. What's owed from prior years has not been posted.
In the past, the committee relied on politicians' and hopefuls' willingness to pay and not mar their political record. But Chairman Kenny Bingham, who took the panel's helm a year ago, said the committee has decided to pursue fines in magistrate's court, after staff goes through the list to assess each circumstance.
"We'll be looking at each individual situation," said Bingham, R-Cayce. How the panel proceeds depends on whether "someone's deliberately ignoring the law or just unaware."
Ability to pay will also be a factor, he said, and some fines may be negotiated down. Complicating the issue is the 2012 election debacle, which resulted in candidates statewide being booted from primary ballots due to state Supreme Court decisions. Some fines may be the result of tossed candidates not filing.
The Senate Ethics Committee is owed a total of $46,800 from 29 people, according to its Sept. 30 posting of 2012 and 2013 fines. Its collection plans are unclear. Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Conway, did not return numerous messages from The Associated Press.