One would think that S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom would have studied up on the ethics rules covering public officials on private vacations.
The state Ethics Commission announced last week that it had found probable cause that Eckstrom violated state ethics laws when he used campaign money to travel with his girlfriend to the Republican National Convention last year. Eckstrom faces six charges of using campaign money for personal benefit.
The 65-year-old Republican – essentially the state’s head accountant – first elected to the office in 2002, reported spending $1,642 in campaign money for gasoline, food and a hotel room during the convention in Florida in 2012. Expenses included $1,372 for lodging at the Innisbrook Resort in Innisbrook, Fla., three stops for gas totaling $238 and two meals costing $32.
Eckstrom’s chief of staff, Eddie Gunn, insisted that a section of state law specifies that travel expenses connected to a political event can be paid out of campaign coffers. And, he said, “very clearly, this (the GOP convention) is a political event.”
But the law also specifies that campaign money can be used only for expenses directly related to a campaign or for normal office expenses. If Eckstrom had been a delegate to the convention or was appearing there in his capacity as a state office-holder, there would have been no problem.
But while his girlfriend was an alternate delegate, Eckstrom wasn’t attending the convention in any official capacity. He used his girlfriend’s guest pass to attend events.
“Taking a vacation with your girlfriend is not a regular expense of the office,” said ethics director Herb Hayden.
Perhaps this misstep could have been excused as unfamiliarity with the ethics code on Eckstrom’s part. But it isn’t the first time he has faced allegations of misconduct along these lines.
Eckstrom had to reimburse the state $669 after he used a state minivan and paid for fuel with a state-issued gas card on a 2004 family vacation to his native Minnesota. He called that a “mistake in judgment.”
A more conscientious public official probably wouldn’t make that mistake twice. He no doubt would be exceedingly careful about any use of public property or money, or the use of campaign funds on what might be construed as a private trip.
A less conscientious public official apparently would risk his career over $1,642. Possible penalties include up to $2,000 for each of the six offenses and a public reprimand.
Ironically, state law allows for ethics fines to be paid from campaign cash.