Richland 2 board members fail Ethics 101

BLYTHEWOOD – Most sitting members of the Richland 2 Board of Education have major gaps in their state-mandated ethics filings, a review of public records shows.

Three board members failed to file Statements of Economic Interest forms for at least one calendar year.

Two of those three board members also haven’t filed quarterly campaign disclosure forms since 2016.

And virtually everyone currently on the board has either been late or missed at least one quarterly report, according to the S.C. Ethics Commission online database.

Craig Plank, who did not win election to the board last month, filed his SEI form on time every year. He also filed an initial report, one quarterly report and a final report, documents show.

The Richland 2 school board plays a direct role in developing the district’s annual budget, which for the 2017-2018 fiscal year totaled $273.9 million, according to the school district website.

The board also recently voted to place a referendum question on the November ballot that asked taxpayers for permission to borrow an additional $476 million to pay for school facility projects.

Voters approved the referendum, resulting in a property tax increase for homes and businesses in Richland 2.

Because Richland 2 board members are entrusted with spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money, greater scrutiny of their ethics filings is appropriate, said Jay Bender, a media law attorney representing the S.C. Press Association.

“You have all these people who take office who pay no attention what the requirements are, and that’s unfortunate,” Bender said.

Forgotten forms

As of Tuesday, Richland 2 board member James Shadd III still had not filed Statements of Economic Interest forms for 2017 or 2018. SEI forms disclose an elected official’s income and potential conflicts of interest.

Shadd III, who ran a separate campaign for solicitor, hasn’t filed quarterly campaign disclosure statements since Oct. 31, 2016. State law requires quarterly reports to be filed in January, April, July and October.

“All candidates with contributions on hand must file a quarterly report covering from the last report through the end of the calendar quarter,” the Ethics Commission web site states. “The quarterly report is required of all candidates once they have begun to file, whether there has been any financial activity or not.”

Shadd III couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Board chairwoman Amelia McKie (2015-2018) and newly elected board member Teresa Holmes (2018) also missed filing SEI forms.

The forms weren’t filed with the Ethics Commission until Dec. 4, nearly a month after the general election. They were due March 30.

Both McKie and Holmes filed their SEI forms after The Voice informed them that they hadn’t been filed.

McKie said she had filed her forms “months ago.” The Voice has been unable to reach Holmes for comment.

Richland 2 board member Cheryl Caution-Parker, who was more than a month late in filing all of her 2018 quarterly campaign disclosure reports, said she saved her work when filing online, but forgot to click ‘File.’

As with McKie and Holmes, Caution-Parker filed shortly after being contacted by The Voice.

“It just didn’t cross my mind to double check because I thought everything was fine when I sent it,” Caution-Parker said.

“A lot of times when you’re smack in the middle of the campaign and things are coming at you from so many different directions, it’s very hard to keep up with everything,” she continued.

Walker said filing dates published on the Ethics Commission website are considered the official filing dates. She said that “it’s the duty of every candidate” to file the forms correctly.

Two other Richland 2 board members have late or missing ethics forms, according to the agency’s online database:

James Manning – Campaign Disclosure Initial Report not filed. Initial reports must be filed within 10 days of spending or receiving the first $500 of campaign funds. Manning reported receiving a $1,000 contribution from Brownstone Construction Group, LLC on Aug. 21, 2018.

Monica Elkins – Quarterly campaign disclosure reports not filed since April 10, 2017.

Board member Lindsay Agostini’s last Campaign Disclosure report on file was a final report dated March 24, 2017.

Final reports are filed only after a candidate’s campaign account is closed. To qualify, a candidate must have a zero balance and no outstanding campaign debts, according to the Ethics Commission website.

“Once a final report is filed, a candidate may not accept or spend any funds for the campaign,” the website states.

Agostini’s final report listed a zero balance on her form. She would have to file a new initial report once she spends or receives at least $500 in new donations, according to the commission.

Her last SEI report was properly filed March 29, 2018.

More trouble for McKie

Walker, the ethics commission spokeswoman, said she “can neither confirm or deny” whether any new complaints have been filed against Richland 2 board members.

Complaints only become public when the commission determines that probable cause exists.

So far, McKie is the only sitting board member who’s been fined for prior ethics violations, according to ethics commission records.

In July 2018, the commission fined McKie $41,000 as part of an eight-count complaint for failing to disclose campaign contributions.

The agency’s online database states McKie hasn’t filed any campaign disclosure reports since February 2015.

McKie has until Dec. 30 to pay the first $20,000 and if she doesn’t, the fine increases to $51,750, public records show. She hadn’t paid any of the money as of Tuesday, Walker said.

In addition to ethics fines, McKie recently faced legal troubles in Richland County civil court.

McKie is listed as a co-defendant in a foreclosure lawsuit that was filed in June 2017.

According to the suit, McKie’s homeowner’s association placed a lien on property located on Hunters Pond Road after $1,800 in assessments went unpaid. The HOA later foreclosed on McKie’s home.

“The Defendant(s) has failed to make consistent payments of the assessments and interest, although demand for payment has been made,” the suit states.

The suit also sought legal fees and expenses, bringing the total bill as of August 2018 to about $6,050, court filings state.

On Oct. 2, a judge signed off on the foreclosure and request for sale at public auction.

The case, however, was disposed Nov. 29 after court documents were filed stating that sufficient funds had been paid to satisfy the judgment.

How did this happen?

As ethics reporting deadlines have eluded Richland 2 board members, tracing how the tardy filings went unchecked remains equally unclear.

Section 8-13-1110 of state law says no public official “may take the oath of office or enter upon his official responsibilities” unless a Statement of Economic Interest form is filed.

According to that definition, it would mean that McKie has illegally served on the school board since 2015, the first year she failed to file an SEI form. The oath of office statute likely doesn’t impact Holmes since she only filed a month late.

Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the State Election Commission, said the agency is only responsible for ensuring that candidates file statements of candidacy.

Whitmire said the agency would only remove from the ballot any candidate who fails to file that form. He noted campaign disclosures and SEI forms fall under the Ethics Commission’s purview.

“I would think compliance would be a question for that body,” Whitmire said.

Walker, the ethics commission spokeswoman, said only the election commission has the power to remove a candidate from the ballot.

Instead, the ethics commission only fines candidates, and only for violations of campaign finance and ethics laws, Walker said.

“We don’t file an injunction or anything,” she said.

Fines wouldn’t kick in until after candidates are notified by mail and a formal complaint is filed.

Complaints aren’t made public until the commission determines “probable cause” exists that a violation occurred, Walker said.

Failing to file SEI forms previously carried dire consequences for more than 200 candidates in one recent election.

In 2012, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled anyone failing to file SEIs when officially filing for public office must be removed from the ballot.

“We fully appreciate the consequences of our decision, as lives have been disrupted and political aspirations put on hold,” the ruling stated.

“However, the conduct of the political parties in their failure to follow the clear and unmistakable directives of the General Assembly has brought us to this point. Sidestepping the issue now would only delay the inevitable.”

In 2013, the General Assembly passed a new ethics law which placed the election commission in charge of candidacy filings and the ethics commission in charge of campaign finance and ethics-related reporting.

The issue of public officials being sworn in after failing to file economic interest forms has yet to be tested in court.

In August 2017, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion relating to economic interest forms.

The opinion, though, only affirms that candidates must file an SEI form after either filing a statement of candidacy or if the candidate has an open campaign account. It doesn’t address what happens if a candidate fails to file an SEI, and is subsequently sworn in.

An attorney general spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment.