Back in March, my news outlet reported that scandal-scarred Horry county, South Carolina council chairman Johnny Gardner was the focus of an ethics investigation into dubious campaign loans ostensibly obtained from his former business – the Johnny Gardner law firm.
Gardner was elected chairman of Horry county council in 2018. He is seeking a second, four-year term in 2022.
Not long after my report was published, mainstream media outlets confirmed that the 58-year-old attorney was indeed the focus of an investigation launched by the S.C. State Ethics Commission (SCSEC) – and that he was scheduled to appear before the commission on August 19, 2021 to answer to six alleged violations of state campaign finance law.
Specifically, Gardner was accused of failing to report a pair of loans totaling $70,000 received by his 2018 campaign from the Anderson State Bank – loans he originally claimed came from his law firm. Gardner also failed to report an $8,700 contribution received from his former business associate, Luke Barefoot, as well as a $1,200 contribution received from a local developer, Randy Beverly.
Both of those contributions were in excess of the $1,000 limit for county-level races …
Last week, the inquiry into Gardner concluded with the local leader admitting to having violated state law – and agreeing to pay a fine of $3,650. Meanwhile the SCSEC – which is notorious for its lax enforcement – issued a “public reprimand” of Gardner.
Really? A “public reprimand?”
According to a filing (.pdf) issued by the agency, Gardner “violated the ethics act when he failed to disclose the correct source of his campaign loans.” The filing further noted Gardner has “amended his campaign disclosure reports to properly reflect the correct information.”
Gardner also returned one of his illegal campaign contributions – and partially reimbursed another illegal contribution to ensure it was in compliance with the legal limit.
The message to politicians across the state? You can break the law with (relative) impunity so long as you correct the record years later … which, of course, is only necessary if you get caught.
“When it comes to illegal activity by our state’s politicians, the SCSEC is in the business of collecting fines in exchange for slaps on the wrists – not actually holding anyone accountable for their behavior,” I noted back in March.
This is why my news outlet has repeatedly called on state lawmakers to pass tougher ethics laws … and to impose stricter penalties for those who violate these laws. I have also challenged them to target the true source of the corruption, “the wealthy, powerful special interests who are pulling the strings of the politicians.”
So far … nada.
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As for Gardner, the SCSEC filing offers further evidence of his habitual dishonesty. In fact, Gardner could not even shoot straight when it came to his decision to accept responsibility for his actions. According to reporter Alex Brizee of The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, the council chairman originally said he would not sign an order acknowledging any wrongdoing in the case – but last week claimed he “never meant to say he wouldn’t settle” and was “thrown off” because the paperwork related to the charges was sent to the wrong address.
This is not the first time Gardner – the self-proclaimed “people’s candidate” – has managed to evade accountability. Regular readers of this news outlet will recall he entered office under a cloud based on his proximity to an alleged extortion plot against local “economic development” officials.
Gardner avoided criminal charges in connection with the economic development fiasco, but shortly thereafter it was revealed the prosecutor who declined to prosecute him previously received campaign contributions from Gardner’s law firm and a key witness related to the inquiry.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass player and a dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including the above-pictured Toronto Blue Jays’ lid).
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