It took Attorney General Alan Wilson nearly eight months to indict former Lieutenant Governor Ken Ard for running a cash-for-contributions scheme during the disgraced Republican’s 2010 campaign. But when Wilson finally did bring criminal charges against South Carolina’s number two elected official, the attorney general came on like Gang Busters in a quick, coordinated attempt to get the fallout from Ard’s misuse of campaign funds over and done with.
State prosecutors showed how Ard illegally paid friends and family to donate to his campaign in order to pump up his fundraising numbers. Wilson said Ard’s “fictitious campaign” was designed “to create the false appearance of a groundswell of political support” by making it look like Ard had received much more in campaign donations than he actually did. Politics is about perception, as the saying goes, and Ard’s scheme gave voters a false perception that he was raising more money than he was.
“Campaign transparency was in reality campaign deceit,” Wilson melodramatically told reporters, adding that he hoped the Ard case would serve as an example to public officials trying to exploit or break campaign finance laws in order to boost their perceived support.
Naturally, Palmetto Public Record decided to shine a little bit of campaign transparency on Wilson’s own political fundraising — and found a scheme similar to the one that led to Ard’s public resignation.
Ethics reports show that on March 26, 2010, Wilson’s campaign took out a $250,000 loan from First Community Bank of Lexington. According to the report, the loan’s designated purpose was for “cash on hand.” But after Wilson filed his campaign disclosure report on April 10, the media proclaimed that Wilson had “raised $488,500 in donations” — even though more than half of that amount was from the loan. Adding to the intrigue, political blogger Will Folks reported when the loan was issued that the bank’s chairman was Mitchell Willoughby — Wilson’s then-employer.
Nevertheless, Wilson’s supposedly prodigious fundraising helped him go on to beat Leighton Lord by less than two points in the Republican primary. But an amended disclosure report filed almost a month after the June primary shows that Wilson paid off the $250,000 loan on April 9 — one day before his campaign disclosed the loan on the ethics report, and less than two weeks after the loan was taken out. Two weeks isn’t enough time to actually do anything with the money before having to pay it back, but it did let Wilson tout an extra quarter-million in fundraising that didn’t actually exist — with the campaign only amending their ethics report months after the loan had served its purpose.
The Wilson campaign’s bait-and-switch was perfectly legal, because it involved a bank’s money instead of Wilson’s own. But by falsely pumping up Wilson’s campaign coffers, the two-week loan achieved essentially the same result as the scheme that led to Ard’s resignation. Wilson may have prosecuted Ard for breaking the letter of the law, but if politics is really about perception, the attorney general appears to be just as guilty as the former lieutenant governor of breaking the spirit.