COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Rep. Harold Mitchell told his colleagues Tuesday that he kept shoddy records and didn't properly pay his bills, but did not use his campaign account for personal benefit.
One year after the Spartanburg Democrat pleaded guilty to not filing his taxes on time, he addressed the House Ethics Committee. Allegations include that he illegally withdrew cash from his account for years, lacks required receipts, failed to report donations, paid for non-campaign items, and misreported a loan payment.
The 10-member panel, split equally between Republicans and Democrats, issued no ruling Tuesday. Its options include dismissing the case, reprimanding Mitchell or expelling him.
Mitchell, 48, said only one of the disputed transactions personally benefited him: using $174 to buy medication for his gout. The amount is part of the $1,900 his defense acknowledges still needs to be reported.
"There were mistakes made on dates — on record-keeping — on how things were done, but I don't think there was any intention to mislead anybody or not be responsible," said his attorney, Bruce Byrholdt.
An accountant hired for Mitchell's defense attributed most of the questioned transactions to errors in the complaint, leaving about $16,000 in dispute. Byrholdt contends nearly a third of that is outside the ethics law's four-year statute of limitations.
But Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham said there's no documentation to support Mitchell's explanations.
"You're supposed to keep every receipt for every expenditure you make from your campaign account," Bingham, R-Cayce, told Mitchell. "This committee has not received any receipts for any of the questionable activity in the amended complaint."
The House investigation stems from Mitchell's criminal case. Mitchell turned himself in on tax-evasion charges in September 2011. After prosecutors forwarded information to the committee in spring 2012, Mitchell took the rare step of asking his ethics case to be made public. He then pleaded guilty last November to misdemeanor charges of not filing his 2007 and 2008 returns on time.
In February, the panel voted unanimously that probable cause existed to proceed with an investigation. More allegations were added in September.
Mitchell said multiple cash withdrawals since 2008 went to charities and paid for campaign needs, such as gasoline, a consulting firm and a cellphone.
He acknowledged a "technical violation" for using campaign money to pay for a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina to stay in a Spartanburg hotel from November 2008 through January 2009.
"I did what I was raised to do — to see if I could help him take care of his family," said Mitchell, chairman of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus.
Money transferred to his nonprofit sponsored a construction trade class for homeless people. Campaign money also helped start a school in Kenya. He said there's nothing wrong with that, since state law allows a campaign to contribute to a charity.
Many of his colleagues' questions involved his explanation that he withdrew cash to pay bills in person. Why not simply write a check for the exact amount of a cellphone bill and mail it in, Bingham asked.
Besides the law not allowing it, "I don't understand the logic," he said.
Mitchell said sometimes he ran out of checks. He also attributed it to habit and an alternative accounting method he said he no longer uses.
His accountant, Marcus Hodge of Ascension Forensic, described Mitchell as cash-oriented.
"It's more cultural than him trying to evade or get around the rules," Hodge said.