S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom’s 1997 sexual harassment settlement and his ongoing extramarital affair are both prominently featured in a hard-hitting new television ad by his Democratic opponent, Robert Barber. Of course the ad is just the beginning of the incumbent Republican’s problems. Specifically, it’s what was not included in the ad that could end up destroying – or at the very least seriously damaging – the 62-year-old’s political career.
Released on Thursday, Barber’s ad slams Eckstrom for spending $57,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment suit filed against him over a decade ago while he was serving as State Treasurer.
“Incumbent Comptroller Richard Eckstrom’s job is to protect our money, but Eckstrom spent over $57,000 taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit against him,” the ad’s narrator says.
“Eckstrom used state cell phones and computers to send sexually-explicit text messages and emails to his mistress in an extramarital affair,” the ad’s narrator continues.
Here’s the spot:
Eckstrom is married, but has reportedly been separated from his wife for some time. Payne is divorced.
FITS first broke the news of Eckstrom-Payne affair back in February after the comptroller general acknowledged his authorship of one of the sexually-explicit emails to Payne. Beyond the sexual remarks, Eckstrom’s emails and texts to Payne also revealed a lovestruck suitor with strong emotions running hot and cold.
“If I were ever able to get to the point of choking off the intense feelings I have for you, maybe I could manage my heart a little more to your liking,” Eckstrom wrote Payne in one email. “But that heart then would be a lot smaller than the one that’s now thumping inside me, and besides, you probably wouldn’t care much for a dishonest heart that would need to try to manage our relationship by attempting to convinced itself that it’s not that strongly attracted and attached to you. And that heart would have a low survival rate because it would kill it to have to give up on the beautiful ideal it’s sought its entire life.”
In other messages, Eckstrom’s tone is substantially less heartfelt. In one message he rips into Payne as “wacked-out and irrational” and tells her to “get past that freaking passive aggression.”
“Don’t be such a freaking narcissist,” Eckstrom wrote Payne in one message.
(To read Eckstrom’s messages, click here).
Earlier this month, we reported on Eckstrom and Payne’s decision to get back together – news that surprised us given the obvious volatility of their relationship. When contacted by FITS for that story, Eckstrom’s office denied that he and Payne were an item again – despite the fact that the pair had just returned from a long trip together.
In fact, Eckstrom snapped this picture of Payne during their October 3 swing through Chester, Fairfield, Laurens and Newberry Counties … one of literally hundreds of pictures he’s taken of her on dozens of similar trips.
(Click to enlarge)
Despite warnings from her friends, Payne says she continued to see Eckstrom because she believed they were truly in love and that his “Jekyll and Hyde” personality was something they could work on together. Also, Eckstrom had agreed to assist Payne in one of several projects that she is working on to benefit schools in rural areas of the state.
“She thought she could change him,” one of Payne’s friends told FITS. “Now she knows she can’t.”
Earlier this summer, we spoke with Payne regarding an alleged incident in which she claims Eckstrom cursed her wildly and threw a garage door opener at her – although Payne declined to go on the record (or report the incident to the authorities) at the time because she says she feared retribution. She did agree to let us reference that incident, however, and said that she has text messages documenting increasingly irrational behavior on Eckstrom’s part.
Asked if that behavior included threats against her physical well-being, Payne said “yes.”
“He’s bullied me through threats and intimidation,” Payne said, adding that she and a friend were both in possession of electronic messages that would document specific threats.
Payne also confirmed to FITS that she is “taking measures” to ensure her safety, but did not elaborate as to what those measures might include. Another of her close friends says that she is seeking an order of protection against Eckstrom that would prohibit him from contacting her or coming within a specified distance of her.
A spokesman for Eckstrom vigorously protested Payne’s allegations.
“We wholeheartedly deny these charges,” said Eckstrom aide R.J. Shealy, referring to the allegations of threatening behavior as “figments of (Payne)’s imagination.”
“It simply never happened,” Shealy said, claiming that “no such (threatening) messages exist.”
Shealy added that Payne has been sending Eckstrom text messages as recently as this morning, messages that Eckstrom has not responded to.
Meanwhile, one of Eckstrom’s supporters who spoke with FITS on the condition of anonymity said that Payne had been contacting the Comptroller General and asking him for money in recent weeks.
An award-winning social studies teacher at Dutch Fork High School, Payne has turned her classroom into the state’s preeminent forum for political talk – hosting dozens of public officials including Gov. Mark Sanford, Rep. Nikki Haley, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Speaker Bobby Harrell and Superintendent Jim Rex. She’s also welcomed top reporters like Jim Davenport of the AP and John O’Connor of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper.
Payne has never attempted to inject her own conservative beliefs into the classroom – inviting an ideologically-diverse group of guests and letting her students form their own opinions about them. Payne then encourages her students to volunteer on behalf of candidates they support.
Eckstrom, for his part, is one of the few fiscal conservatives in state government as well as a leader in the movement for greater government transparency. Ideologically, he’s everything that taxpayers could ask for in a public official, however if these allegations are true it would raise some serious questions about his judgment.