Date set for McMaster’s ethics hearing on 2010 donations

Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster speaks during a joint session of South Carolina legislature on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. A hearing has been set for October on allegations that he took donations in excess of the legal limit.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A complaint against Republican Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster that accuses him of taking nearly $70,000 in illegal campaign donations after an unsuccessful run for governor could be resolved as early as September.

Herb Hayden, director of the State Ethics Commission, said Thursday that McMaster’s attorney plans to propose a resolution to the matter to the board on Sept. 16. Hayden said he did not know what the proposal would be. McMaster’s attorney, Butch Bowers, did not immediately return a cellphone message.

The allegations involve McMaster’s unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. He’s accused of taking 51 over-the-limit contributions to help retire his campaign debt after losing the primary.

Under state law, a candidate for statewide office can accept a maximum of $3,500 from one donor per election cycle. He’s accused of accepting between $100 and $3,500 in excess of that from 51 donors after his primary loss. Seven had already given the $3,500 max during his campaign.

Bowers has argued that — even though McMaster was out of the race — donors who had already given him money could still contribute up to $3,500 more because his debt retirement effort was taking place in separate, post-election cycle.

A public hearing on the accusations was initially set for March 18, but Bowers asked for a continuance as negotiations continued. The commission notified him in a letter Tuesday that the rescheduled hearing, if needed, will be Oct. 21.

A McMaster spokesman has said the former two-term attorney general relied on a 1992 opinion by the Ethics Commission in treating a debt retirement account separate from his campaign.

McMaster did not take out a loan for his 2010 race. Rather, he continued to fundraise to pay the campaign’s bills after losing the four-way primary that June, essentially paying vendors as he raised the money to do so. He collected a total of $150,000 after the primary, paying off the campaign’s final bills in May 2011.

The complaint accuses McMaster’s campaign of creating a “phantom general election” in his campaign filings, as if he were competing in November 2010, to circumvent the law. It was filed in April 2014, two months before he won the GOP primary for lieutenant governor. The complaint did not become public during last year’s race.

By law, ethics complaints must remain secret until the Ethics Commission determines probable cause exists to pursue the case further. The commission made that determination in December following the agency’s preliminary investigation.

McMaster touted his work on ethics reform during his successful bid last year. Gov. Nikki Haley made him co-chair of an ethics reform study committee, which issued 23 recommendations in January 2013. None addressed donor limits or campaign cycles.

Legislators have called ethics reform a top priority for several years but have yet to pass anything.