Nearly 18 months after leaving office, former state Sen. Robert Ford was indicted this week on eight counts of violating state ethics laws for allegedly spending thousands of dollars in campaign cash on himself.
While the violations cover areas previously explored by the Senate Ethics Committee, the filing of formal charges means Ford is accused of criminal wrongdoing.
If convicted on all the counts, Ford faces a maximum 21 years in state prison.
One of the charges is a felony count of forgery for allegedly altering checks drawn on his campaign account.
Other charges accuse Ford of failing to accurately disclose thousands of dollars of campaign contributions and expenditures tied to his Senate re-election efforts and his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor.
Ford, a Democrat who quit the Senate in June 2013 at the height of the Senate ethics probe into his finances, said Friday that he was blind-sided by the charges, adding that he was given no warning that indictments were coming.
"Everything I did in the state Senate was for other people," said Ford, who maintains his innocence. "I can't imagine eight charges they could come up with that any jury in this country would find me guilty on."
Ford, 65, of West Ashley, chastised other members of the Senate Ethics panel who first began looking into his spending more than two years ago. He said he is the victim of a vendetta led by rival senators.
"At no time during this episode has Robert Ford had his chance to state his case in front of a fair committee," he said.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson made the charges public on Friday, the day after they were issued by the Richland County grand jury, which has jurisdiction over Columbia and the Statehouse where lawmakers file disclosure documents.
It is the same grand jury that indicted former House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston, who pleaded guilty last month to six ethics-related charges that also cost him his political office.
According to the indictments, Ford was charged with eight counts which include one count of alleged misconduct in office and one count of forgery. Misconduct in office is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to 10 years in state prison.
Forgery of less than $10,000 is a felony punishable upon conviction by five years imprisonment and/or a fine at the discretion of court.
Additionally, there were six counts filed as violations of the S.C. Ethics Act which included two counts of personal use of campaign funds; two counts of depositing campaign contributions into personal bank accounts; and two counts of submitting false reports.
The Ethics Act violations are also misdemeanor offenses, each punishable upon conviction by one year imprisonment and/or a fine of not less than $5,000.
"Collectively, these indictments accuse Ford of obtaining an improper personal benefit from his public office by depositing campaign funds into his personal bank accounts, using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses, and then filing false campaign reports and submitting forgeries to the Senate Ethics Committee," Wilson said.
Ford served more than 20 years in the S.C. state Senate while becoming an intriguing figure in local politics. He previously served on Charleston City Council where he was known for his sharp tongue and sometimes trigger temper.
When he moved on to the Senate in 1992, he drew statewide attention for what would become a close relationship with former Senate leader Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston.
Eventually Ford, who is black, would become a supporter of Confederate heritage, including the public display of the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds - which McConnell is widely known for backing - arguing that black and white residents of South Carolina should become respectful of each other's culture. But Ford's sometimes pro-Confederate recognition comments often angered other Democrats and black leaders.
Friday's indictment notices don't go into great detail as to time, place and amounts of money involved. The starting date for the alleged charges is Nov. 5, 2008 - Election Day - and run to as recently as April 2013.
One of the most eyebrow-raising expenditures uncovered by Senate ethics investigators in the probe came when Ford was accused of using some of his campaign money to make adult-store purchases and male enhancement pills.
At the time, Ford downplayed the purchases, saying the adult-store items 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 also claimed somebody fraudulently used his debit card to buy Cyvita, pills used for male enhancement.
On Friday, Ford said he viewed his use of campaign funds as legal, including expenditures made as donations or gifts to charities, when he sent birthday and holiday greetings to constituents, or bought ties for members of the Senate sergeant-at-arms staff.
"I'm not concerned with those charges," Ford said of the grand jury indictments.
Meanwhile, Ford's attorney, Charleston lawyer Bill Runyon, said there wasn't much detail in the state indictment as to specifics, meaning he couldn't comment in depth. He said the only thing Ford is guilty of is bad bookkeeping.
He expects that Ford will get a bond appearance time set up for next week in Columbia. Runyon said he will ask for a personal recognizance bond allowing Ford to remain free without having to post cash or property.
"Then, we go on down the yellow brick road," Runyon said.