New lieutenant governor faces campaign finance allegations from 2010 race

Henry McMaster

COLUMBIA - South Carolina Lt. Gov.-elect Henry McMaster faces 51 counts of campaign finance violations dating to his 2010 campaign for governor, according to documents filed by the S.C. Ethics Commission in December and released Tuesday.

A closed-door hearing in the case has been scheduled for March 18. McMaster could be ordered to repay excess contributions and be fined up to $2,000 on each count.

The complaint against McMaster was filed in April 2014 - just within the four-year deadline to file a complaint and during the Republican primary for lieutenant governor won by McMaster. The allegations were filed by David G. Ellison, of Greenville, who contributed $3,500 to McMaster's opponent in the primary.

Ellison's complaint accused McMaster of accepting $51,850 above the limit for campaign contributions, while the resulting Ethics Commission charges detail around $70,000 in over-the-limit contributions.

Each instance of a person contributing more than the $3,500 maximum per election cycle is considered to be a separate violation.

McMaster, the state's former attorney general and a champion of statewide ethics reform, lost the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010 to Gov. Nikki Haley. After the loss, McMaster set up a different account to raise money to pay off campaign debt. The Ethics Commission charges that many of those contributions were over state limits.

"His campaign created a phantom general election in which he was not participating and solicited additional donations for that election in an effort to circumvent the law," the complaint said.

Ellison could not be reached for comment. Ellison said in his complaint that he wants the Ethics Commission to ask McMaster to repay the excess contributions and impose "just and proper" penalties.

McMaster argued in paperwork filed with the Ethics Commission that the contributions were solicited to retire debt and should be counted separately from general election donations. He relied, he said, on a 1990s opinion from the Ethics Commission.

McMaster spokesman Jeff Taillon said in a statement that the complaint was filed during last year's Republican primary to "embarrass" the recently-elected lieutenant governor. "The question raised is a technical one: Should a candidate for public office be allowed to set up a separate debt-retirement account after the campaign is over? In good faith, Mr. McMaster and his campaign team relied on an opinion by the State Ethics Commission."

Taillon said McMaster is working toward a "favorable resolution" on the issue.

Ellison's complaint was based on McMaster's campaign finance disclosure forms and a story in The State newspaper detailing over-the-limit contributions in several 2010 campaigns.

The newspaper tallied about $336,000 in contributions that exceeded legal limits in the races for attorney general and governor. Haley told the newspaper she would refund $51,522 in excess contributions. McMaster said at the time he would refund contributions if state regulators asked him to do so.

Attorney General Alan Wilson and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen also returned excess contributions.

The campaigns said a timing wrinkle in state law had caused unintentional accounting errors. Under state law, donations given within seven days of a general election are counted toward that cycle and not the runoff period that follows a large primary election. Candidates can accept a total of $3,500 from donors in each election cycle, or $10,500 total per donor in an election that includes a primary, primary runoff and general election.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.