‘I ain’t no damn crook,’ ex-lawmaker Robert Ford proclaims after pleading guilty

Former Charleston state Sen. Robert Ford, seen here leaving the Richland County Courthouse in early December, pleaded guilty Wednesday to four of eight ethics related charges he faced from misusing his campaign accounts.

COLUMBIA — Former state Sen. Robert Ford proclaimed, “I ain’t no damn crook,” just minutes after pleading guilty Wednesday in the Richland County Courthouse to four ethics-related charges.

“I’m pleading guilty because I don’t have the resources to go to court,” he told reporters in the courthouse lobby.

Ford’s defiance followed his admitting before Circuit Judge Robert Hood that he was guilty of spending thousands of dollars from his campaign accounts on himself.

The Charleston Democrat will have to wait until April 13 to hear what his sentence will be — officials are still reviewing how much money was involved and what amount of restitution can be set.

Ford’s attorney, Bill Runyon, of Charleston, said Ford in unlikely to be sent to prison. With no criminal record other than civil-rights era arrests, Ford probably would be placed on probation, his lawyer said.

However, there is no agreement in place as to a sentence recommendation, so state prosecutors will present their case during the April hearing.

Hood will determine the sentence at that time. In the meantime, Ford remains free on bail.

Assistant Deputy Attorney General Creighton Waters said investigators uncovered hundreds of instances of Ford withdrawing money that was supposed to be for his Senate or 2010 gubernatorial campaigns.

Instead, the campaign funds went to car payments, department store purchases, restaurants, novelty shops and other living expenses.

Ford said very little during his appearance in front of Hood, except to acknowledge that he understood what his plea meant. He seemed to hesitate, though, before admitting his guilt.

Ford pleaded to one misconduct in office charge, one forgery charge and two charges of violating the state Ethics Act covering his financial reporting. Four of the other ethics-related charges he was originally indicted on in November were dismissed.

The misconduct charge carries up to 10 years behind bars, but Ford could have been sent to prison for 21 years if he’d been convicted of all eight charges.

Despite Ford’s out-of-court protestations of his innocence, Waters said that the former lawmaker’s plea is what matters.

“He’s pleaded guilty. His plea is locked in. We just have to check out the money,” he said.

Waters said much of the probe is rooted in the Senate Ethics Committee’s questioning of Ford’s spending. That investigation showed many of the receipts, cash withdrawals and expenditures Ford turned in did not add up.

Ford resigned his seat in Columbia in June 2013 near the end of that original Senate ethics review. His departure ended a colorful two-decade career in the Legislature that included vocal defenses of the public display of the Confederate battle flag as an example of black and white South Carolinians respecting each other’s heritage.

Outside the courtroom Ford, 66, repeated his defense that the money in question went to supporting his campaigns, buying gifts for others, and toward the various other deeds he did on behalf of his constituents and in the community.

“It’s just a misunderstanding, that’s all,” Ford said.

The conviction, though, “means all the good things I did with those campaign contributions are going out the window.”

Some courtroom observers said Ford’s conduct is further evidence on top of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s ethics conviction that the Legislature needs to do more in terms of strengthening its watchdog role.

“They let him get out of control for a long time,” Common Cause of South Carolina Director John Crangle said of other Senate lawmakers who were aware of Ford’s spending.

Crangle added that the crackdown came because Ford “basically bought his own fate. He ignored the warnings he was given.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.