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Ethics Commission drops allegations of excessive donations to AG Alan Wilson's campaign


COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The State Ethics Commission dropped allegations Wednesday that Attorney General Alan Wilson took eight donations exceeding the legal limit during his re-election campaign.

South Carolina's top prosecutor was accused of violating state ethics law that bars campaigns from taking more than $3,500 from a donor per election cycle. Wilson's attorney, Rep. James Smith, said the campaign did so unintentionally and has already returned the money.

"These eight are inadvertent, unintentional errors corrected prior to the complaint being filed," said Smith, D-Columbia. "He shouldn't be penalized."

Smith asked the board to treat the $11,500 in excessive donations as technical errors and take back the "probable cause" finding it made during a closed-door meeting in September. By state law, a complaint must remain secret until the commission determines probable cause exists to proceed.

Commissioners refused those requests but voted unanimously to take no further action, ending the need for a public hearing that had been set for Dec. 2.

"This is someone who actually cares about compliance and wants to be compliant," board member Sherri Lydon said of Wilson, a Republican in his second term.

Commissioners also voted unanimously to correct documents indicating they previously cleared Wilson of the allegations.

The eight donations in question, which exceeded the limit by between $500 and $3,500, were among 37 complaints filed in March 2014 by a Wisconsin resident with no apparent knowledge of the donations she disputed. She never responded to staff requests for information, causing commissioners to believe they were being used "as a political tool," said the agency's attorney, Michael Burchstead.

Board member Frank Grimball said the commission therefore considered all of the complaints invalid.

However, the commission decided eight of the 37 allegations should be reviewed and directed staff to open its own complaint. Those directions were not part of dismissal orders made public in January. Smith attempted Wednesday to get the eight allegations dropped on the basis they had already been dismissed, but that argument was trumped by the commission's decision to correct the orders.

"I don't think the commission needs to be bound by clerical errors by the commission staff," Burchstead said. "The orders need to state the truth."

Of the 29 other allegations, 15 of those donations exceeded the limit due to a quirk in state law that says donors who max out during a primary must wait a week before giving toward the next election cycle.

Other candidates in 2010 who had excessive contributions because of the seven-day rule included Gov. and her Democratic foe, state Sen. , as well as Wilson's Democratic opponent. In an advisory opinion, the commission cautioned candidates ahead of the June 2014 primary not to make the same mistake.

While the prospective opinion let the 2010 violators off the hook, Wilson had already refunded donations that topped the legal limit because of that rule, making him the only candidate to retroactively comply.

Smith said Wednesday that Wilson's "done his darnedest" to make his campaign filings accurate.

In all, Wilson returned $50,000 in over-the-limit donations in spring 2014, days before the commission officially notified him of the complaints signed by Krista Thom. At the time, a spokesman told The Associated Press the campaign was working to correct inadvertent errors in four years' worth of quarterly filings.

In March 2013, Wilson's campaign corrected his filings after a review by an independent accountant found $134,000 in previously unreported donations and expenses surrounding his 2010 win. His campaign chairman attributed the 68 donations and 16 payments to human error.

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