Hardeeville man disqualified from election seeks ethics investigation

tbarton@islandpacket.comMarch 19, 2012 

A Hardeeville resident disqualified in his bid for City Council because of a clerical error has asked for an investigation by the State Ethics Commission and will try to run as a write-in candidate.

Scott Ready was declared ineligible Thursday for the May 8 ballot by the Hardeeville Municipal Election Commission, despite a State Ethics Commission determination that his paperwork was in order.

"The Municipal Election Commission chose to ignore our response," said Cathy Hazelwood, deputy director and general counsel of the State Ethics Commission.

The town committee -- appointed by City Council -- unanimously ruled Ready ineligible because he failed to correct a common clerical error before the filing deadline.

The move has prompted questions about the motives behind the municipal commission's decision, whose chairwoman is the mother-in-law of incumbent Roy Powell, whom Ready would have challenged.

Chairwoman Joyce Meeks denies the family connection influenced her decision and said there was no conflict of interest.

"My son-in-law being on council had nothing to do with it," Meeks, 73, said in a phone interview Monday. "I voted because the paperwork was wrong. Had it been any other candidate, I would have voted the same way. His paperwork was not in order, and he had 30 days to do so, just like everyone else. Why should he be given any more time?"

Attempts Monday to reach Powell for comment were unsuccessful.

Other members of the Hardeeville commission are Mae Montgomery and Lyndia Daniels. Montgomery declined to comment Monday. An attempt to reach Daniels was unsuccessful.

Ready said he doesn't want to speculate about the motives of Meeks or the other commission members, but a reasonable person would question whether Meeks' relationship to Powell had a bearing on the commission's decision.

OFFICIALS IGNORE ETHICS COMMISSION

Filing for two City Council seats and mayor opened noon Feb. 8 and closed at noon March 8.

Ready, 48, mistakenly filed as an "elected official" instead of as a "candidate" when he electronically submitted a form required of all candidates with the State Ethics Commission on Feb. 24.

He said he misunderstood and thought he was filing to become an elected official, a mistake state ethics and election officials say is common and should not have disqualified him.

Meeks, however, points to state law that says if candidates fail to submit the form at the time of filing as a candidate, their name shall not appear on the ballot.

Ready argues he completed the form on time, and the error should not stand in the way of his seeking election.

He was not the only candidate who needed to amend the filing, but was the only one notified after the deadline that his application had an error, which he corrected in less than two hours.

The State Ethics Commission, as well, signed off on Ready's paperwork, saying when it reviewed the Hardeeville candidate roster, the files were correct, Hazelwood said. The roster was returned to the Hardeeville election commission with all the candidates eligible to be placed on the May ballot, she said.

Usually, local election officials try to give candidates seeking office every opportunity to run, not the other way around, she said.

"It was a legitimate mistake," Hazelwood said of Ready's error. "We have people do that all the time. He's not the first, and he won't be the last."

Typically, when the Ethics Commission finds errors, it tells the local election commission and candidates, who have 10 days from the filing deadline to make corrections or pay a fee, Hazelwood said.

TIME OF THE ESSENCE

South Carolina law also says a public official -- including those on local election commissions -- may not take any official action on matters in which a family member has an economic interest of $50 or more.

A son-in-law is considered a family member, Hazelwood said.

"The question is whether the son-in-law had an economic interest in the matter before the election commission," she said.

The complaint process is confidential until the State Ethics Commission finds probable cause, Hazelwood said. If found guilty, Meeks could face a fine of up to $2,000 and a public reprimand, she said.

Filing a complaint with the ethics commission, though, will not help Ready get his name on the ballot because it has no say on who appears, Hazelwood said.

Ready could appeal to Circuit Court or run as a write-in candidate. He said he intends to start a write-in campaign and is considering "other options," but would not specify what they are.

Candidates have 14 days from the filing closing to declare their intent to run as a write-in. That gives Ready until noon Thursday.

Though still not listed on the ballot, declaring would force an election. Currently, incumbents Powell, 46, and Mike Sweeney, 76, are uncontested."I'm continuing to meet with the citizens of Hardeeville to let them know I am still running ..., so when they go to vote they can write my name in," Ready said. "I'm using the catch-phrase, 'Always Ready.' "

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

State Ethics Commission

City of Hardeeville

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