Criminal inquiry justified in Ard's ethics violations

Attorney General Alan Wilson is right to review the ethics case against Lt. Gov. Ken Ard.

It's the logical next step after the S.C. Ethics Commission fined Ard a total of $48,400 on 107 violations of state ethics law and ordered him to reimburse the commission $12,500 for investigative and administrative costs.

Ard is right behind former Gov. Mark Sanford in the record for total fines assessed on ethics law violations.

He paid $100 for each of 69 violations, $500 for each of 23 violations and $2,000 -- the maximum fine -- for 15 violations.

The Ethics Commission notes in its consent order that the law provides for criminal penalties, but that is left to the attorney general.

If Wilson decides there's enough evidence to warrant a criminal investigation, the case would be turned over to the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division.

Unfortunately, the attorney general has a lot of material to review. Most disturbing is the number of times the commission notes that Ard misled investigators about purchases made with campaign funds.

They include Ard's reporting to the commission that a trip to Washington in December was to meet with U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham "to discuss issues affecting South Carolina, including economic development and role of the lieutenant governor's office in addressing those issues."

But U.S. Senate lawyer Grant Vinik said there was no meeting. A call was made to Graham's office to arrange a tour of the Capitol and the Library of Congress for Ard and his family, but Graham was out of Washington. Ard billed his campaign account $2,543 for trip. That included airfare for his wife and three children, meals and limousine service.

In his response to the commission, Ard also said he spent $3,056 at a Florence Best Buy store for "computers and other office equipment for use in his home for campaign and office-related expenses."

But the Best Buy bill investigators obtained showed Ard's campaign account was used to buy a $335 PlayStation, a $975 flat-screen TV, two $600 iPads and other personal electronic gear.

It's one thing to plead ignorance or a misunderstanding of the law, but these and other expenditures, including clothing purchases for Ard and his wife, go beyond that.

In the consent order that Ard signed, he admits to only 38 of the 107 violations, but agreed to pay fines on all 107, as well as reimburse the commission for its costs.

Whether the attorney general will find Ard's actions rise to a criminal level remains to be seen. The Ethics Commission states that it found sufficient evidence for the administrative sanctions, but criminal charges warrant a higher standard.

His attorney, Butch Bowers, says there was "no intentional misleading or no intentional misinformation provided to the Ethics commission."

He also noted that Ard never spoke to investigators. That's no excuse for inaccurate answers filed on his behalf.

When we supported Ard in his bid for lieutenant governor last year, we noted that his experience as the owner of a manufacturing business had taught him that when you're in charge you have to own up to your mistakes, as well as take credit for the successes.

This investigation is putting that to the test.