Ethics panel fines Ford nearly $45K Ex-senator accused of misusing campaign funds says he's '1,000 percent' innocent Ford, Harrell cases could help spur ethics reform

In this file photo, then-State Sen.Robert Ford, D-Charleston, center, talks to his lawyer, William Runyon, right, during a hearing on ethics charges against him in 2013, the day before he resigned. The ethics commission on Wednesday, found cause to levy a fine against Ford and refer his case to the attorney general's office for campaign fund misuse.

COLUMBIA - The Senate Ethics Committee hammered former state Sen. Robert Ford with nearly $45,000 in fines and penalties after determining he used more than $14,000 in campaign funds to pay personal bills, including tailoring his clothes and car detailing.

The fines are more than three times the amount of money they say he misused.

For his part, Ford said Wednesday he was "1,000 percent" innocent of any allegation that he did anything wrong, and looked forward to clearing his name.

He also said that unlike other people in power in South Carolina, he had no allies and no family in status positions to help him out.

"I'm alone here," he said. "They found a convenient target."

Ford, who had been one of Charleston's most well-known and longest-serving Democratic senators, was assessed a maximum of $30,000 for 15 separate campaign reporting infractions.

The committee also directed the Charleston Democrat to donate the more than $14,000 they said he improperly used to the Columbia-based charity Children's Trust of South Carolina.

The case was referred to the state attorney general for possible criminal prosecution.

By comparison, former Gov. Mark Sanford was hit with $74,000 in state ethics fines that surfaced after his trip to Argentina to visit his then-mistress in 2009. The Sanford assessment remains the state record for ethics violations.

The fines announced Wednesday come almost a year after Ford resigned his seat in Columbia last June under a cloud of related charges. A few days after quitting, he closed his campaign account. But according to documents presented to the committee, he continued to use the account to pay for personal expenses.

In early June, according to the committee, Ford drew down his campaign account's remaining $14,758. He later wrote a check for the same amount to "Twin City Outreach Mission Black Community Developer's Program." That organization doesn't have nonprofit status with the IRS but another similarly-named organization does, according to committee documents.

"Twin Cities was not a legitimate nonprofit," Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway, the ethics committee chairman, told reporters after the hearing. "It was, on the face of it, a personal fund, which he has before and since used for personal gain."

Reached Wednesday at his home in Charleston, Ford said he welcomed the attorney general's probe, adding he was being targeted as an example.

"Number one: I am completely innocent. And I know the AG's office is going to talk to me," said Ford, who said his former colleagues on the Senate ethics panel had refused to make contact with him about their questions.

Ford also said he was being singled out and made an ethics "scapegoat" based on his previous reputation for being outspoken and going against the grain.

During a tour of his home Ford showed boxes filled with birthday, Father's Day, Mother's Day and other types of cards and mail-outs he said he paid for with the campaign money.

Ford did not attend Wednesday's hearing but was notified it was scheduled, said his lawyer, Bill Runyon of Charleston.

Runyon said because Ford works out of his house, some expenses that appear personal are also business-related. He also said Ford was a poor bookkeeper.

Runyon, too, said Ford has been unfairly singled out. "Somebody has to be shot at," he said.

"I think all these ethics issues are much ado about nothing," Runyon said. "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be politicians."

Ford used the $14,000 or so to pay credit card bills, rent, utility bills, tailoring, car payments and car detailing, among other payments, the committee's report found.

Runyon stipulated to the report, meaning he did not contest its findings.

The report also shows that the former senator filed false campaign expense reports. Those documents show $11,837 in expenditures primarily for printing services and $7,876 in mileage - all apparently legitimate campaign expenses.

When the committee subpoenaed Ford's bank records, however, those reported expenses didn't match up. Instead, bank records show just one check made out to Ford's Twin Cities charity, established decades ago. Those funds were later used for personal expenses, the committee report found.

The new issues echo what Ford was accused of last summer that led to his resignation. Last May, Ford was accused of using campaign money for adult-store purchases and male enhancement pills.

Ford has said the adult-store purchases were gag gifts for people who helped with his community work but refused pay. Small gifts for campaign staffers are allowed under ethics laws.

Ford said somebody fraudulently used his debit card to buy Cyvita, pills used for male enhancement.

The committee's attorney, Lyn Odom, said at the time that he found nearly $20,000 that should have gone into Ford's campaign accounts but was diverted to his personal accounts. He said he found nearly $48,000 in unreported contributions after comparing Ford's campaign filings with his bank records.

Giving examples of altered documents, Odom said Ford turned in checks that explained payments as covering campaign or charity expenses when subpoenaed documents showed they paid his auto and renter's insurance bills. On other copies of checks, the name of the recipient had been changed, Odom said.

The case is still under review.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.