The State Ethics Commission recently ruled that lawmakers can not use campaign funds to pay membership dues for country clubs, dinner clubs, and other organizations that are not directly related to a campaign. A recent investigation found that many lawmakers use their campaign accounts to pay for everything from club memberships and hunting trips to GoPro cameras.
After years of using campaign cash to pay for memberships at country clubs, dinner clubs and other organizations, lawmakers now have to pick up their own tabs, the Charleston, S.C.-based Post and Courier reported.
The State Ethics Commission recently ruled that those expenses are not allowed under campaign money rules. Several lawmakers, and some candidates, have used campaign cash to pay membership dues at private dinner clubs, such as the Capital City Club and The Palmetto Club, where they said they conducted political business, the Post and Courier reported.
Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, said the membership purchases he made in 2009 and 2010 at the Capital City Club in Columbia were for that reason. “If I have constituents who may come up here (to Columbia) and it would be used for meetings to go and be isolated,” he said.
But Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden said the new ruling prohibits lawmakers from using campaign cash to pay for membership to any club or organization that is not directly related to a campaign, or directly related to an elected official’s duties as an office holder. There was no rule prohibiting such use before Wednesday, the Post and Courier reported.
A recent Post and Courier investigation found that many lawmakers use their campaign accounts as a personal ATM to pay for everything from club memberships and hunting trips to GoPro cameras. An examination of more than 90,000 spending records since 2009 revealed that lawmakers used campaign funds to pay for their memberships to AAA, AARP, Costco and the National Rifle Association. They forked over at least $30,000 in dues to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that has pushed conservative legislation in state legislatures across the country, the Post and Courier reported.
Rep. Tommy Pope said he thinks membership to ALEC might be allowed because it is not something he would be a member of were he not a lawmaker. He used campaign funds to pay membership fees as recently as last year, the Post and Courier reported.
“With ALEC, I don’t foresee that being a problem because of what the membership provides,” said Pope, who also used campaign funds to pay for a membership in 2010 to the Clover Jaycees, a chapter of the U.S. Junior Chamber.
For other memberships, he said, it’s less clear-cut. “Each member would have to decide how (a membership) comported with their duties as a legislator,” Pope said.
Hayden said if a person uses campaign funds to pay a prohibited membership fee during the next few months as lawmakers are made aware of the change, the commission would send a letter asking the lawmaker to reimburse the campaign from his or her private account, the Post and Courier reported.
Clyburn said the change made by the ethics commission is not a hindrance. “This makes it clear what you should do and what you should not do,” he said. “If that’s the rule now, that’s fine.”