Last Thursday, former Democratic Sen. Robert Ford was cutting the grass at his West Ashley home when a Statehouse security guard rolled up. Ford recognized him. In fact, Ford had probably given the guard a necktie as a Christmas gift once or twice as was his custom back when he was a senator.
It's a long drive from Columbia, and the security guard didn't make the trip just to chat. The security guard was there to personally deliver something. It wasn't to return a necktie.
“He just said it was papers,” Ford says, papers that had to do with his campaign reports. The ex-senator took the papers to his lawyer.
The following day reporters started calling. It turns out Ford is being investigated — again — by his colleagues on the Senate Ethics Committee. That's the same panel that last spring sent an investigation into Ford's campaign spending to the attorney general to see if he had broken any laws. The panel had held a public hearing where they essentially accused Ford of using his campaign money to pay for things at adult superstores, among other places.
The fallout didn't just wind up with Ford resigning. He says it almost killed him.
“A grown man almost dying from stress,” he says with a chuckle. “It's not funny. It's really sad.”
Ford says he's not sure what this latest investigation is all about. He says he closed his campaign account last June.
“I don't know why they served me with papers. They already washed their hands of me and sent the matter to the attorney general to see if I committed some crime,” he says.
The latest complaint against him, however, is a new matter, not a rehash of his last run-in with the investigatory panel.
According to a public document posted at Statehouse.gov
, the panel found probable cause to investigate whether he converted campaign funds for personal use from July through October of last year — after he resigned. A cross reference with his public campaign finance disclosures shows money coming out of his Senate account in October 2013 and going to print shops and for birthday cards.
Ford says he used to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year sending out birthday, Mother's Day, anniversary, and holiday cards to registered voters in his district, but has cut it back significantly. If he spent money out of a campaign account in October for birthday cards, that would be at odds with his statements that he closed the account in June.
“I know this is all clear as mud,” says Ford's attorney William Runyan. He chalks it up to sloppy bookkeeping, like the last time he represented Ford in a campaign finance matter. “It's something that we're going to address. I don't have all the details.”
Ford believes he crossed the wrong people in the General Assembly at the wrong time. He says he likely upset some lawmakers by sounding alarms about missing money at S.C. State University. And he says he chose not to vote for a bill being championed by the chairman of the committee that investigated him. (Since he resigned he's threatened to expose sitting lawmakers
for unethical behavior.)
Ford also believes he's being singled out by his former colleagues as they debate a new ethics reform bill lawmakers in both parties and Republican Gov. Nikki Haley want to pass early this session. House and Senate members police themselves when it comes to their ethical behavior. The new bill seeks to create an independent body to do that.
Some have argued that what happened to Ford last year, who had long been known to have campaign finance issues, was a way for senators to show the system works as is.
A few weekends ago, in a speech following the screening of a clean money-in-politics documentary called Priceless
at the Cinebarre in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Press Association Attorney Jay Bender hit on that. He made a reference to Ford's treatment in the historical context of South Carolina being founded by oligarchs from Barbados who ruled from a top-down political model that he says hasn't much changed. Bender ticked off a number of recent ethics scandals here: Mark Sanford, ex-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, Nikki Haley Bobby Harrell.
“What about Sen. Robert Ford? He bought dirty movies. He's gone,” Bender said. “Go big or go home. We nail the small potatoes and we ignore the big problems because in our culture we accept that, because we acquiesce in that model that was imported from Barbados, where that thin veneer of elites tells us what we will like, and unfortunately, we put up with it.”