COLUMBIA — As legislators resume the investigation into Gov. Mark Sanford's alleged ethics violations, the head of the Senate Ethics Committee issued a warning to his fellow lawmakers to remind them not to double dip.
While no allegations exist that state legislators are billing both their campaigns and the state for expenses, Sen. Wes Hayes, a Rock Hill Republican, said he wanted to head off any confusion.
"We want to make it clear that you can't double dip," Hayes said. "I am not saying that anyone has. I have no complaints that anyone has. What we're trying to do is make sure they know we can't do that."
Likewise, Rep. Roland Smith, a Warrenville Republican and chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said he knows of no such instances, but he also is considering sending out information for the Legislature's
January return for a refresher on the ethics laws.
"Currently, to my knowledge, we don't have any problems with House members collecting reimbursement from the state and from their campaign account," Smith said. "To me, that seems like a no-brainer that is absolutely not legal."
State law allows legislators to use campaign money for expenses related to their public service, and Hayes said they do.
"Some senators do reimburse for meals and gas, and that's legitimate — if they're not reimbursed by the Senate," he said. His letter was sent Nov. 3.
Money and resources
Legislators earn a salary of $10,400 a year and they can collect about $130 each day they are in session to cover meals and hotel stays. They can also collect money for other expenses, such as one round trip in mileage for each week they are in session, and have an allotment for postage, flags and long-distance calls. The rules are slightly different in the House than in the Senate.
Daily expenses for trips to the Statehouse can be covered when the Legislature is not in session with special approval, but the state budgetary problems have limited when the reimbursements are available.
Each legislator also is given $12,000 a year for in-district expenses, which is
supplemented by additional resources provided by the counties. What is provided by the counties vary.
Today, the seven-member House Judiciary Impeachment Subcommittee will examine the governor's record for campaign reimbursements, as well as his use of first- and business-class flights and his failure to report his use of private aircraft.
The State Ethics Commission charged Sanford with 37 possible ethics violations based on his air travel and less than $3,000 in campaign reimbursements. He faces a closed-door administrative hearing, probably after the New Year, and also is being reviewed by Attorney General Henry McMaster for any possible criminal wrongdoing.
The special House subcommittee's hearing today is the third on the matter. Two additional hearings are scheduled for Monday and Wednesday.
The State Ethics Commission has oversight of the executive branch. Ethics laws are monitored in the House and Senate by committees made of legislators.
University of South Carolina associate political science professor Mark Tompkins said that all the discussion about ethics laws will likely lead to public pressure for the state to strengthen the rules for everyone.
As the governor and his advocates defend his record, especially when it comes to travel, they have raised the argument that he is only doing what past governors and legislators have done.
Tompkins said the whole controversy might leave the public with one impression: that the entire system needs to be cleaned up.
"That is the power of a bad example," he said.