Love letters might hamper Eckstrom

Eckstrom (left), Payne (right)

South Carolina's reform movement suffered another blow Wednesday when Kelly Payne, a candidate for the Republican nomination for state superintendent of education, verified a series of leaked love e-mails to her came from Republican S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom.

Eckstrom is married, but he has been separated and living apart from his wife for two years, according to his re-election campaign. Payne, who is divorced, is a Dutch Fork High School teacher.

Eckstrom, 61, the state's top accountant, is one of the most influential members of the reform movement, which has pushed for smaller government, lower taxes and more accountability and transparency in state government. He holds one of the five seats on the State Budget and Control Board.

It remains to be seen how Eckstrom's e-mails will affect his own political career as well as the reform movement. His re-election campaign acknowledged he is the author of the e-mails to Payne, which date from April 7 to Feb. 14.

In the e-mails, Eckstrom expresses his love for Payne, 40, quotes Scripture and acknowledges he has ducked out of meetings with the governor, agency heads and the Budget and Control Board to take her calls.

In a statement Wednesday, Eckstrom said he will continue seeking re-election. Thus far, he faces no opposition in the June GOP primary or the November general election.

Eckstrom said he will not comment about his private life.

"We're not commenting on personal stuff like this, for one because it doesn't have a thing to do with the duties of the office, and also because introducing private issues will only distract from the necessary day-to-day financial issues we deal with," Eckstrom's statement said.

"Ask about state finances or government transparency, and we'll be happy to talk at length, but I think some folks, and some people in the media, sometime want to focus too much on the private lives of public figures -- things involving their lives outside their offices -- and not enough on the jobs they've been given to do."

Eckstrom was not willing to discuss the future of the reform movement for this story.

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This isn't the first time Eckstrom has grappled with controversy.

In 1997, he acknowledged he stood "awkwardly close" to a female staff member but denied charges by the woman that he tried to kiss and embrace her.

The staffer sued Eckstrom, and the state settled the lawsuit for $57,500 in taxpayer money.

Payne said in a prepared statement Wednesday that she will continue her campaign for state education superintendent.

A social studies teacher in the Irmo-Chapin Lexington-Richland 5 school district, Payne faces two opponents, Newberry College President Mick Zais and Furman University professor Brent Nelsen, in the June GOP primary.

In her statement, Payne, a political newcomer, said her e-mails were leaked "in what appears to be a deliberate effort to undermine my candidacy."