Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner is sworn into office at the Horry County Courthouse. Photo by Janet Morgan/Myrtle Beach Herald janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner admitted to six ethics violations and agreed to pay a fine of $3,650 to the State Ethics Commission, according to public records released this week.

Gardner signed a consent order in which he acknowledged that he violated state ethics law by not accurately reporting the source of a loan to his 2018 campaign. He also admitted to accepting two excessive campaign contributions.

"I take responsibility for the issues," Gardner said Thursday. "I wasn't doing the day-to-day financial matters. I had someone doing that for me. I don't think that's out of the ordinary. … Once I found out that there was an issue, I cooperated 100%, cooperated fully. We found out that there were some errors made. We corrected those errors. And because I'm captain of the ship, I took responsibility for it and I went ahead and signed the order."

The commission's decision was not unexpected. Gardner had publicly said he wanted to get the matter behind him and was willing to pay fines.

When Gardner ran for chairman in 2018, his campaign manager Luke Barefoot filed his campaign disclosure reports and maintained his records, according to the consent order. Throughout the campaign, Gardner reported numerous loans from his law firm that exceeded the cap in state law.

A complaint filed against Gardner last year alleged that the law firm loans were actually contributions from other individuals and the donations exceeded the limits outlined in state law.

The commission subpoenaed Gardner’s bank records and found that he failed to report an $8,700 check from Luke and Rachel Barefoot and a $1,200 check from Randy Beverly. The commission also found that the loans Gardner had reported as coming from his law firm had actually been provided by Anderson Brothers Bank. Two loans totaled $70,000 and Gardner used his home to secure the loans, according to the consent order.

Since the complaint was filed, Gardner has corrected his campaign records and repaid the excessive contribution to Beverly ($200) and the full amount to Barefoot ($8,700), according to the consent order.

He had previously paid $600 for not filing campaign disclosure reports on time.

The ethics violations he admitted to this week amount to $500 per offense and an administrative fee of $650. The penalties also include a public reprimand.

Under state law, the commission could have fined Gardner up to $2,000 per count.

Gardner has 60 days to pay the penalty.

"I'll pay the fine and move forward and put this behind us," he said.

William Martin, the Myrtle Beach man who filed the ethics complaint against the chairman, credited Gardner for accepting responsibility. In a prepared statement, he described more pressing issues facing local politicians, particularly the Horry County Republican Party.

"This is a good outcome," wrote Martin, who has been a strong critic of local, state and national leaders on social media. "State ethics rules, like state and federal laws, exist for a good and valid reason. All too often, elected officials ignore them. Chairman Gardner has done the right thing. But at this time we face issues far more threatening to good governance than the subject of my complaint. Hopefully, going forward he will continue to do the right thing by unequivocally rejecting the lawless and unhinged sedition-minded Trumpist/QAnon faction of the formerly Grand Old Party."
"It's my sincere hope that Chairman Gardner and the others who sit on HCC will strongly rebuke them and rise above their anti-American gutter politics that threaten to ruin our beloved Horry County forever," he wrote.

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236


I'm the editor of myhorrynews.com and the Carolina Forest Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Horry County, South Carolina. I cover county government, the justice system and agriculture. Know of a story that needs to be covered? Call me at 843-488-7236.

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