State ethics panel owed $3 million in unpaid fines

Charleston County Council member Colleen Condon owes $35,500 in state Ethics Commission fines.

Politicians and some lobbyists owe the State Ethics Commission nearly $3.2 million in unpaid fines, with Charleston-area politicians and organizations accounting for more than $500,000 of the debt.

If all the debts were paid at once, it would be enough to cover the Ethics Commission’s annual budget for about four years, but some will never be paid. Some organizations on the list seem to no longer exist, some debts date back to 1999, and at least one of the politicians on the list died years ago.

Among current Charleston-area officeholders, three Charleston and Berkeley school board members, and Charleston County Council member Colleen Condon, have the largest debts. Most of the fines come from failures to file campaign finance reports on time.

Anthony Brown, a Charleston County Constituent School Board District 2 member, said the state has taken money from his tax refunds. The Mount Pleasant resident currently owes more than $54,000.

“‘Ethics’ makes it sound like something bad, but I just filed the wrong paperwork,” Brown said. “I was late filing my paperwork, and they charged me $100 a day.”

Only a dozen people in the state owe more than Brown, while 425 owe less. The maximum fine is currently $5,000 per report, but years ago there was no cap. Four people in the state, including former North Charleston City Council candidate Louin Poston, have Ethics Commission debts of more than $150,000. Efforts to locate Poston for comment were unsuccessful.

“The people on the debtors list are people who have refused to pay, and we are having to initiate collection efforts,” said Ethics Commission Executive Director Herbert Hayden. “They have exhausted their appeals, or they have not appealed.”

In some cases, politicians had a chance to pay smaller fines following hearings, but did not.

Condon, for example, could have paid a $7,500 fine following a hearing last year related to campaign finance reports that were filed late in 2011 and 2013. Instead, she now owes the Ethics Commission $35,500.

Condon did not return phone calls seeking comment but in March said: “I take responsibility for my errors and whatever the final fine assessment is determined to be.”

Campaign funds can be used to pay campaign-related fines, Hayden said, but local candidates for offices such as a school board rarely have large campaign funds. Many on the debtors list were candidates who did not win elections, or won and have since left office.

Those with Ethics Commission debts can see wages garnisheed or tax refunds seized, once the debt is turned over to the Revenue Department.

The list of debtors does not include members of the Legislature because the Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction over them.

Charleston County school board member Christopher Collins, of North Charleston, owes the commission $24,499.15. Berkeley County School Board member Frank Wright, of Huger, owes $19,306.74.

Collins did not return a call seeking comment. Wright said he makes regular payments, but Hayden said Wright has not voluntarily paid.

“A judgment was filed with the Berkeley County Clerk of Court, and the debt was referred to the Department of Revenue,” Hayden wrote in an email. “DOR has collected $2,193.26 through wage garnishment and seizure of a tax refund.”

Wright, the senior board member, was unopposed in his bid for re-election in November. Six months earlier he was reprimanded and fined $21,500 for failing to file a pre-election Campaign Disclosure Report in 2010 and Statements of Economic Interests in 2011 and 2012.

“I just went on and said I’ll pay it, no big deal,” Wright said Tuesday. “(Candidates) file an annual form and mine was late and when it’s late, they charge you for it and that’s what happened.”

Hayden said the Ethics Commission collects about a $250,000 yearly in fines and penalties, accounting for about a third of the commission’s budget.

“We tried to get some legislation through that would prevent someone from running for a future office if they had a debt,” he said. “With lobbyists or lobbyists’ principals (the companies that employ the lobbyists), we can revoke their registration.”