Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner acknowledged Tuesday that there were errors in his filings with the State Ethics Commission, and he said he’s willing to accept the penalties for those mistakes.
Gardner said he’s corrected his campaign records since he learned of the problems.
“I’m not going to fight any of this,” he said. “I don’t want this thing to slow down what I’m doing. It was a bookkeeping error. There was no money taken that shouldn’t have been taken.”
Gardner is accused of six violations of state ethics law, including failing to disclose two bank loans and accepting campaign donations over the legal limit, according to commission records.
A hearing on Gardner’s case is scheduled for Aug. 19 at the commission’s office in Columbia.
Commission records outline the case against Gardner:
• He failed to disclose a $20,000 bank loan in a 2018 pre-election campaign report.
• He failed to disclose a $50,000 bank loan in a 2018 quarterly campaign disclosure report.
• He failed to disclose a $1,200 contribution from Randy Beverly on a 2019 quarterly disclosure report. The donation was over the $1,000 cap .
• He failed to disclose an $8,700 contribution from then-campaign advisor Luke Barefoot on a 2018 quarterly campaign disclosure report. The donation was also over the $1,000 cap.
Under state law, the commission could fine Gardner up to $2,000 per count and force him to repay donors for contributions exceeding the maximum legal amount.
But Gardner said he has already corrected some of the problems highlighted by the commission, including updating his filings. He said he borrowed money from Anderson Brothers Bank, but his campaign records had improperly listed that money as coming from his law firm.
“Everybody knows where it came from,” Gardner said.
As for the overpayment, Gardner said he’s already refunded that money to Beverly and Barefoot.
"The only thing that's outstanding is my loan," he said. "I make monthly payments on that."
The complaint against Gardner was filed last year by William Martin of Myrtle Beach.
In his letter to the commission, Martin questioned the origin of some of Gardner’s campaign contributions and whether the chairman violated the $10,000 cap on personal campaign loans during his run for the seat in 2018.
Martin requested that ethics officials investigate “whether the so-called ‘loan’” from Gardner’s Conway law firm to the campaign was “a disguised, illegal campaign contribution from one or more individuals, so that chairman Gardner’s Ethics Commission filings were materially and intentionally false.”
Martin argued in his complaint that it would be impossible for the loan money to have come from Gardner. He cited the tax liens filed against the chairman, his firm and his businesses.
When reached Tuesday, Martin declined to comment on his complaint, saying he was advised not to discuss the case by ethics officials and the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
However, SLED spokesman Tommy Crosby said that agency is not currently investigating Gardner. SLED did investigate allegations that Gardner tried to extort money from the county’s economic development agency in 2018. However, that investigation cleared the chairman of any criminal wrongdoing.
On Tuesday, Gardner said he’s ready to address the allegations with the ethics commission and resolve the matter.
"Somebody told me one time that with these campaign allegations, some people's records look perfect on the surface, but when you dig down they're all messed up," he said. "Mine look bad on the surface, but when dig down it's legitimate. There's no problem."