Throughout his political career, current Statehouse candidate Mark Smith of Mount Pleasant has liked to list on campaign disclosure reports that he didn't throw any of his own money into his races.
But campaign disclosure reports covering his time as a Mount Pleasant town councilman show he received donations from several limited liability companies he controls, including two headquartered at his home.
The LLCs Enigma 1, Enigma 2, Enigma 3 and Enigma 4, respectively, are individual commercial real estate holding properties co-owned by Smith and his wife, Elayne Forastiere Smith.
But you wouldn't know he was part of any one of them by glancing at his campaign disclosure reports.
For example, during his 2013 run for Mount Pleasant Town Council, Enigma 1 contributed the maximum $1,000 to the his campaign, according to campaign disclosure forms. The following year, Enigma 2 contributed $1,000, while Enigma 3 contributed $450. Smith's ties to the LLCs are not publicly listed in the documents.
The preference of donating from these companies continued into his campaign for South Carolina's House District 99, where Smith faces a GOP runoff Nov. 28 against first-place finisher Nancy Mace of Daniel Island.
According to his 2017 pre-election campaign disclosure report, Enigma 1, Enigma 2 and Enigma 3 each gave $1,000 to the Smith campaign.
The arrangement, while out of the ordinary, is not illegal under state law.
"It's not immediately self-revealing, but there's nothing improper about the practice," said Steve Hamm, director of the State Ethics Commission.
The overall practice of how candidates collect and report their money is getting a fresh look from ethics officials. In January the commission will consider whether candidates and donors are sidestepping state law that limits campaign contributions by donating through multiple companies.
Smith, who owns properties and funeral homes in Mount Pleasant, Goose Creek, Isle of Palms and West Ashley, said each of the Enigma companies he controls are individual commercial real estate holding properties. They were not created solely to funnel campaign funds, he said.
Smith said he had two reasons behind these donations. As a business owner, Smith said it gave him clout when speaking to fellow business owners about donating to the campaign.
Also, candidates can be repaid for their individual contributions. As a contribution from an LLC, however, that money is not coming back.
"I did not want to have 'Mark Smith' contributing individually to his own campaign," Smith said. "I am completely legitimate and above board in all of my business and personal transactions."
Pointing to Mace, Smith questioned a portion of her campaign disclosure report that shows four members of an Isle of Palms family each gave $1,000 to her campaign, including two members whose occupation is listed as student.
"It sure makes you wonder how that young adult has the financial ability to write a $1,000 check," Smith said. "Did that money really come from that individual?"
Mace shrugged off Smith's question.
"You'd have to ask their parents," she said. "I have done everything to my knowledge that is right by the Ethics Commission and by the law in terms of fundraising and terms of contributions."
Mace and Smith are vying for the Statehouse seat last held by House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, who resigned before he pleaded guilty to misconduct in office. The winner of their runoff faces Democrat Cindy Boatwright in a special election January 16.