Beaufort's first-time candidates could get booted from primary ballot, pending Supreme Court ruling

achristnovich@beaufortgazette.comApril 30, 2012 

A S.C. Supreme Court decision could mean at least two Beaufort County candidates will not be allowed on the June 12 primary ballot.

Dan Duryea, who is running for a Beaufort County Council seat in the seventh district, and Laura Sterling, who is in a three-way race to represent S.C. House District 120, could be disqualified if the high court rules them ineligible because they didn't submit a financial disclosure form to party officials at the same time as another required document.

Both Beaufort County candidates seek Republican nominations; more than 50 candidates statewide could also be affected by the ruling, according to the state Democratic and Republican parties.

Requests from the plaintiffs, Michael Anderson and Robert Barger of Lexington County, to fast-track the case to state's high court were accepted last week, and the panel will hear arguments Tuesday.

State law requires candidates who do not currently hold elective office to submit statements of economic interests when they file. It also says those who fail to file on time will have their names left off the ballot.

This year's primary deadline was March 30, but some candidates complained that the S.C. State Ethics Commission website indicated they had until April 15 to file the "statement of economic interest." In light of the complaints, the commission said earlier this month it would give candidates 10 additional days after March 30 to file the form.

That decision prompted two lawsuits -- one against the S.C. Democratic Party and a second against the S.C. Republican Party -- to keep the names of a handful of Republicans and Democrats running for Lexington County state House races off June's primary ballot.

The suits contend the law is clear that candidates must file their statement of economic interest at the time they file to run for office. The form requires candidates to list basic information such as name, address and phone number. Reporting income is only required if it's derived from government, according to the ethics commission website.

"This thing about filing both (forms) at the same time in the same place makes no sense," said Beaufort County Republican Party Chairman Jerry Hallman, adding the statement of economic interests is posted online and has to be filed electronically by the candidate while hard-copies of other forms must be submitted to him. "... There's no way you can file it with the same person at the same time."

Hallman was in charge of accepting applications from Republican candidates filing in Beaufort County. He said he told candidates to submit the economic interest form by March 30, but also said in an interview that the information on the form is so general, turning it in late would have little consequence anyway.

"I don't know... Having someone's name, address and then a bunch of 'N/As' is not germane," he said. Incumbents are required to file that statement four times a year during their terms, and the elections law for filing forms at the same time "does not apply to a public official who has a current disclosure statement on file," according to the S.C. Ethics Commission website.

That means a ruling for the plaintiff's would probably only affect those who do not currently hold office.

Sterling, who is running against current County Councilmen Weston Newton and Jerry Stewart, said being a first-time candidate is hard enough without the worry of being struck from the ballot.

"It only harms people that are new to the process," she said. "In my case, it would knock out the only person who's not an established politician."

While Sterling submitted her intention to run March 16, she submitted her statement of economic interests March 30.

"Jerry Hallman was very helpful to me -- I don't think he was trying to put me in this position," she said. "I just don't think the information was properly disseminated through the party."

Duryea just filed his disclosure form Wednesday. He said questions about reporting his occupation and his cousin's position on the State Elections Commission kept him from filing until last week.

"It's not like you have a Filing 101 course," he said. "Clearly, there must be a struggle with this if it's happening to more than 50 people."

If the state Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it will be Hallman's job to identify who wouldn't qualify for the ballot, said State Ethics Commission spokeswoman Cathy Hazlewood in an email.

However, if the court rules the other way, Hallman said he wouldn't penalize any candidate.

"If the Supreme Court turns this back to me, all 14 Republican candidates for Beaufort County will be on the ballot," Hallman said.

While the court will hear arguments May 1, it is not known when the justices will make a decision.

Follow Anne Christnovich at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

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