In some ways, life hasn’t changed much for Robert Ford.
He’s planning another “Walk Off Diabetes” event to bring attention and awareness to a disease that afflicts one in eight South Carolina African-Americans.
For Memorial Day, he gave 100 veterans $25 grocery store gift cards donated by local businesses.
And earlier this week, he visited two high schools on behalf of local kids who’d been suspended. They both got back into class.
These are the sorts of things he did during his 17 years on Charleston City Council and 21 years in the state Senate. But now he does it as a private citizen.
Two years ago, Ford resigned from the Senate during an Ethics Committee investigation into how he spent campaign money. That led to an attorney general’s indictment and, earlier this year, a reluctant guilty plea.
Last week, a judge sentenced Ford to five years of probation, 350 hours of community service and ordered him to pay $70,000 in restitution.
That’s a lot of cash for a 66-year-old man who has a lot of jobs but doesn’t get paid for any of them.
Some people have offered to try to help Ford raise the money, but so far nothing much has come from it. Ford isn’t sure what he’s going to do.
“I hate asking people for money,” he says.
This is a man who has never spent more than $25,000 on any of his 10 political campaigns. He lives modestly, and used to get by on his $10,000 Senate salary.
Of course, that’s what started this probe. The Senate Ethics Committee said he was supplementing his income by using campaign donations to pay his light bill and buy clothes, among other things.
Ford said his home also served as his district office, and the clothes were for veterans. And he always bought gifts for constituents, sent out cards on Mother’s Day, Christmas and the like.
Ford says he had to plead guilty because a trial would have cost him twice as much as the fine. And, as usual, he just didn’t have the money. He’s still bitter that his colleagues decided to make him the poster child for ethics reform.
He’s got reason to think they tried to make an example of him. Former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard didn’t get fined quite as much, although he was accused of improperly spending hundreds of thousands in campaign donations — not tens of thousands, as Ford was.
This is a sad coda for a man instrumental in making both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Confederate Memorial Day state holidays.
Ford is the guy who delivered the final vote that allowed Charleston to build the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.
But all the goodwill he built up over the years seems to have evaporated.
Funny, some politicians can get convicted of misusing taxpayer money and hold on to public office. Ford uses money people gave him to pay his light bill, and he’s out on the street.
Ford, who was never shy about criticizing folks, doesn’t say much about that these days. Instead, he talks about a plan to get all high schools to teach trades, like Wando, so we have a better-trained workforce. He wants to get more people involved in civic life — attending school board and city council meetings.
He may even run for the Senate again.
But no matter what he does, Ford is going to have that $70,000 hanging over his head, nagging at him. He’s got five years to pay it off.
And raising that money is the one campaign Robert Ford never wanted to run.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.