COLUMBIA, S.C. — It’s OK for state representatives to use campaign cash to buy clothes for the Statehouse, but it’s never OK to pay the dry cleaning tab with donations, the House Ethics Committee said Thursday.
That advice is part of a committee-approved list of what House members can and can’t legally buy with donations. It won’t be used to punish past spending.
“We’re all trying to tighten up and be as specific as we can. The laundry-list opinion is done to try to give people some guidance,” said Ethics Chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce. “People are petrified of making a mistake and getting a newspaper article written about them.”
The list of 25 do’s and don’ts answered legislators’ questions to the panel, asked amid prosecutor David Pascoe’s investigation into possible Statehouse corruption. That probe continues, two years after former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor campaign finance violations. No one else has been charged.
“The whole environment clearly has brought awareness to people, which is a good thing,” Bingham said. “People ought to have some comfort and confidence in where the lines are.”
The approved rules no longer allow representatives to use donations to pay membership dues to private clubs, a reversal of previous practice. But legislators can use donations to pay dues to political groups, such as caucuses, and to newly join civic groups, if the membership is tied directly to being a House member.
Many of the items deemed “permissible” come with complicated caveats.
For example, buying formal attire with donations is allowed, but the clothes can be worn for “official use” only. Defining that is left to the purchasing legislator. Considered campaign assets, the clothes must be “disposed of” once the legislator leaves office.
Bingham said he doesn’t expect many legislators to buy clothes with donations, and he hasn’t, but state law doesn’t bar it outright.
“You cannot walk on that House floor unless you have a suit and tie. There are a lot of people who don’t own suits and ties and coats,” he said. “As long as it’s a rule and we control your outfit you have to wear — it’s no different than a uniform … It is a very tight, narrow opening but you can’t close it down without changing the law.”
The rules could result in more legislators using a separate cellphone for personal use.
It’s common for legislators to pay their cellphone bills at least partially with donations. According to the opinion, their rationale is they don’t want to carry two phones. But staff couldn’t determine how legislators split the bill between personal and office-related talking and texting.
Under the opinion, House members who choose to have one phone — and use donations for part of the tab — must justify how they determined that reimbursement. And the phone itself can’t be bought with campaign money.
“However, the committee finds the better practice” is just keep the bills separate with two phones, the opinion reads.
In another opinion approved Thursday, the committee said it’s OK for legislators who indirectly benefit from Medicaid — if they’re pharmacists or own a company that rents medical equipment, for example — to vote on Medicaid issues.
In those jobs, legislators don’t know what kind of health insurance plan pays each customer’s tab, Bingham said.
“They receive an economic benefit from Medicaid reasonably foreseen to accrue to anyone in that profession,” the opinion reads.