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Editorial: Latest 'Uncovered' outrage shows what happens in SC when we fixate on DC

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Former Chester Mayor George Caldwell (left) is pictured with former Chester City Councilman William King, who continued to draw his salary, attend junkets and collect other perks for nearly two years after a judge ordered him to cease acting as a council member. Ed Sharpe/Chester News and Reporter

You can’t make this stuff up.

And apparently in South Carolina, as The Post and Courier’s reporters are discovering, you can’t throw many rocks without hitting another one of these outrageous examples of small-time government corruption that lurk just below the surface.

As Avery Wilks reports along with The (Chester) News & Reporter’s Travis Jenkins in the latest installment of our Uncovered project, William King was elected in 2015 to the Chester City Council even though he had been convicted of at least 27 counts of forgery and other felonies and 47 misdemeanors, and under state law and the state constitution was barred from holding any elective office until at least 2019.

Even if Mr. King didn’t realize when he filed that the Legislature had amended the state Constitution in 1997 to prohibit felons from holding office for 15 years after they complete their sentences, he knew by early 2018, when a local watchdog group filed suit against him and the county election commission over his illegal officeholding.

And so, at some point, did everybody on the City Council.

They knew that the city kept paying him a $450 monthly salary for nearly two more years after a judge issued a temporary restraining order that barred him from acting as a council member, until the trial was completed and the judge ordered him to forfeit his office. They knew too that the city kept reimbursing him for expenditures small and large — including, more than a year after the restraining order was imposed, a $2,000 junket to San Antonio.

In all, Mr. King collected more than $11,500 in tax funds post-restraining order (not to mention the money he collected the first three years he served illegally), which isn't a huge amount of money but which involves a huge amount of gall, particularly in a town that can barely make payroll.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Mr. King decided to leach off the public. Criminals, after all, have a tendency to do unethical, immoral and, yes, criminal things. What should surprise us is that nobody in the city tried to stop him. Not the city administrator with no previous municipal governance experience who owed her job in part to him. Not a single one of his fellow City Council members.

Mayor Wanda Stringfellow said when she questioned the payments after she rejoined City Council in May 2019, she was told Mr. King was being paid because the council hadn’t voted to stop it. Rather than proposing such a vote, “I didn’t give it much thought,” she said.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by that either. When voters ignore local government and spend all their time fixated on the latest outrage in Washington or the latest battle in the culture wars, our local governments can easily ignore us. And abuse us.

Chester City Council’s decision to squander $11,500 on illegitimate pay and perks won’t dramatically affect the lives of Chester residents. But a council that would quietly condone such abuse is not a council that cares about serving the public, so it’s likely to affect residents in other ways, such as higher taxes than they should have to pay and  creating a city that is a pariah for businesses and a place educated and civic-minded people want to flee.

It’s no coincidence that a City Council full of people who would look the other way is a city whose finances are in such disarray that it had bank accounts it didn’t know existed. And had no idea how many city credit cards it had issued. And lost $120,000 on a youth health program and $500,000 on a program that provided meals to children during the summer because it neglected to fill out paperwork seeking reimbursement for those costs.

The "Candidate Qualifications" page on the S.C. State Election Commission website includes the 15-year waiting period for felons to run for office. But there’s no mention of it on the “Statement of Intention of Candidacy & Party Pledge” that candidates have to sign to appear on the ballot. That form does include a 127-word oath candidates must sign promising they won’t run in the general election if they lose a political primary. In other words, preserving the power of the political parties is more important to state officials than preserving the integrity of our constitution.

So the most obvious way to address the legal problem in Chester is to add the 15-year-post-sentence ban to the filing paperwork — in bold. If the Election Commission won’t do that, the Legislature should require it.

The Legislature also should enact a punishment for running for an office you’re not qualified to serve in: a hefty fine and a ban on holding any offices for 15 or 20 years.

What it doesn’t need to do is require the State Election Commission to run background checks on all candidates to ensure that all of them have cleared the felony waiting period and that they live in their jurisdictions and meet all the other qualifications. As outrageous as the King case is, it's not something that happens often enough to justify such an expenditure.

But some sort of abuse of office happens often enough to justify all of us paying more attention to the government closest to us. That is, unless we want to get rolled.

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