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The State

Former Richland councilwoman hit with $300K ethics fine. Here’s how she can cut it by 90%

By Bristow Marchant,

15 days ago

After years of failure to disclose her financial interests and campaign spending to the state, a former member of Richland County Council has been hit with a nearly $300,000 penalty by the S.C. Ethics Commission.

However, in an order disclosed Friday, commissioners gave former Councilwoman Gwendolyn Kennedy a window to avoid paying most of her fine.

The commission found Kennedy committed 134 separate violations of state ethics law and campaign disclosure requirements dating to her time on county council from 2016 to 2020. The commission reached its decision after an Aug. 17 hearing, at which the commission order notes Kennedy did not appear.

Kennedy had faced hundreds of ethics charges over her conduct on Richland County Council, including misspending taxpayer money through the use of a county-issued credit card. But the majority of Kennedy’s assessed penalties — almost a quarter-million dollars worth — were assessed by the Ethics Commission for a failure to follow campaign finance regulations. Another 90 counts alleging violations of the S.C. Ethics Act for failure to disclose campaign donations and expenditures were dismissed by the commission, since Kennedy was already facing charges of failing to file the relevant campaign disclosure form.

The former councilwoman failed to file required statements of economic interest for all four years she served on county council. Kennedy also failed to file a pre-election spending report for her 2016 campaign and six other required campaign disclosures in 2017 and 2018. Multiple attempts to reach Kennedy by mail about her missing reports received no response, the commission notes.

For missing multiple filing deadlines between 2016 and 2018, a late filing penalty of $90 per day began on March 14, 2019, increasing to $900 per day on March 24. A separate penalty for missing her 2019 statement of economic interest began on Feb. 17, 2020, at $10 per day, increasing to $100 per day on Feb. 27.

The only attempt to comply with the requirements came on June 1, 2021, when Kennedy finally filed her 2016 pre-election campaign report showing $2,135.31 on hand. At the time, she had accrued $5,000 in late filing penalties for this report alone. By the date of the hearing, Kennedy had not filed any other required documents with the commission.

After Kennedy’s bank records were subpoenaed, it was found she maintained two separate campaign accounts at different banks, in violation of state law. Records showed she had withdrawn $8,375.54 in cash from the accounts at various points (each withdrawal in excess of $100 each, in violation of state law), and made $2,644.07 in what the commission characterized as “personal expenditures” using campaign funds. Kennedy also received $3,335 in reported campaign donations that were never deposited in her accounts, according to the commission.

Another 14 of the charges related to purchases for food and fuel Kennedy made on her county purchasing card, and was then later reimbursed from the county for the same expenses — essentially double dipping into taxpayer funds. While the county-issued card can be used for gas purchases for county-related trips, on eight occasions Kennedy was found to have gassed up more than one vehicle at a time on her county card.

The final two charges related to purchases of “groceries for personal use” charged to the card, totaling $344.37. In one instance, the commission found the store declined two other forms of payment from Kennedy before she charged the items to her county card.

Six of the charges related to a trip to the 2017 S.C. Association of Counties conference, including double-charging a $129.90 meal at Outback Steakhouse. Four similar charges resulted from the 2018 county retreat.

Kennedy is no stranger to controversy around her spending. The State reported in 2018 on misuses of the county’s purchasing cards by council members as revealed in records released through a freedom-of-information request.

Kennedy did not respond to requests for comment from The State at the time, but told the Free Times that she had occasionally used her county credit card for personal expenses by mistake and that she “paid it back every time I pull that thing out by mistake.”

Nevertheless, another four counts of double-dipping occurred during the 2019 Association of Counties conference, the Ethics Commission found.

Kennedy ultimately lost a re-election bid in 2020 when she was defeated in the Democratic primary by Gretchen Barron. Barron now represents District 7, covering Blythewood, Killian and areas of North Columbia.

In its order, the Ethics Commission assessed a $50,100 late fee for failure to file required documents, plus $196,000 in penalties and a $1,000 administrative fee, which amounts to $247,100 in total. Kennedy was also ordered to pay $2,644.07 to the Children’s Trust Fund. However, if Kennedy pays just a tenth of the late fee and penalty — or $25,610 — and provides proof of the payment to the Children’s Trust, the remainder of her fees and penalties will be dismissed.

The commission also assessed a $48,800 penalty for misuse of Kennedy’s purchasing card, which will be reduced to $4,800 if the penalty is paid within the next 18 months.

It’s unclear if Kennedy will make the payment within that time. A timeline attached to the ethics packet details attempts to get Kennedy to file corrected statements for more than a year before a formal ethics complaint was filed. It also noted at the time she owed $13,000 in fines for previous non-compliance.

If Kennedy does not make the lesser payments within the allotted time frames, she would be required to make a total payment of $298,544.07. The Ethics Commission’s order also noted Kennedy’s misuse of her county credit card had been referred to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.

Reached for comment on Friday, Kennedy told The State she had not yet seen the commission’s order and declined to comment.

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