SC Democrat repeatedly broke ethics law, used campaign money to pay for Netflix, Hulu

·6 min read

Democrat Phil Noble violated state law in 2018 when he spent thousands of campaign dollars on personal expenses, including Netflix and Hulu subscriptions, gourmet popcorn and clothes from a Calvin Klein outlet store, all while his campaign repeatedly failed to report details about who was contributing to his gubernatorial bid, a government watchdog has determined.

The findings come three years after the S.C. Ethics Commission began investigating the Charleston businessman after one of Noble’s own campaign aides filed a complaint in October 2018 about insufficient and delinquent fundraising reports.

By issuing subpoenas for Noble’s campaign bank account records and reviewing each transaction, line by line, the commission discovered Noble improperly used campaign funds for personal use some 66 times while he crisscrossed the Palmetto State in the six months leading up to his party’s June 12 primary three years ago.

The infractions, detailed in documents obtained by The State newspaper, reveal for the first time the extent to which Noble repeatedly flouted the Ethics Reform Act even as he called for ending corruption in politics during his failed quest to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor.

“Nearly every candidate is going to have not filed a report on time once, and pulled out the wrong credit card once. But there’s a difference between a mistake and a pattern,” said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Noble admitted to the 17 ethics violations by his campaign, as he did in a Nov. 7 consent order. On the phone, he took his concessions one step further and characterized his own campaign’s rule-breaking as “awful” and “scandalous.”

In addition to using campaign dollars to pay for two months of Netflix and Hulu, along with numerous meals, gasoline and a $365.25 Comcast internet bill, the commission discovered Noble also failed to file three timely campaign disclosure reports as required by state law.

The commission also learned Noble failed to maintain and preserve records disclosing the occupations of 92 contributors, and found seven ATM cash withdrawals were made from his campaign account that exceeded the $100 limit set forth in the state’s ethics law.

Meghan Walker, the executive director of the state Ethics Commission, declined to discuss specifics of the Noble investigation case but said South Carolina’s watchdog agency is “hard at work.”

“These types of cases require a great deal of time and attention,” Walker said, adding that the commission often subpoenas and reviews a large volume of information to do this kind of work.

The S.C. Ethics Commission publicly reprimanded Noble and ordered him to pay $27,661.63 in fines and fees. Walker confirmed Noble will have until November 2022 to pay these fines.

A 2019 advisory opinion from the commission stipulates that he cannot use any campaign dollars to pay down these debts.

Noble must also pay the Children’s Trust Fund $5,661.63, a total selected by the ethics commission based on the $3,658.63 in campaign funds Noble used for personal use and for the $2,003 he improperly withdrew.

“It’s real simple. I’m the candidate so I accept responsibility for what happened, period, end of sentence,” Noble said when asked about the infractions.

“Having said that,” Noble continued, “I trusted someone who I thought I knew and they betrayed my trust, betrayed the people they worked for and they betrayed the campaign. It’s that simple.”

Betrayal and blame

Though Noble declined to mention the person by name in the phone interview, Noble identified the source of his betrayal in mitigation as his former campaign manager Brandon Upson.

In the consent order, Noble claimed he hired Upson to manage all “day-to-day decision making including all the campaign finances and accounting and reporting requirements.”

Outside of a late-filed April quarterly report, Noble claimed he was not aware of any other issues involving his campaign’s finances or filings until after he lost the primary election.

Once the campaign ended, Noble claimed Upson “disappeared” and refused to return repeated calls, emails and other messages.

In the consent order, Noble said he trusted his campaign manger to ensure filings would be made in accordance with state law and that “campaign funds would be collected, managed, and spent in accord with South Carolina campaign laws.”

Upson, who is now chairman of the state Democratic party’s Black Caucus and is the chief strategy office with the House Democratic Caucus, emphatically denied Noble’s assertions when reached for comment by phone.

“That’s absolutely false. His daughter was in charge of the finances,” Upson said, calling the Noble campaign “the worst campaign I’ve ever been on.”

A review of Lizzie Noble’s LinkedIn profile shows she was the fundraising assistant and event specialist for the Noble for Governor campaign from January 2018 until June 2018.

When asked about his daughter’s role on the 2018 campaign, Noble shot back, “She only signed what the campaign manager told her to sign.”

Upson, meanwhile, said the only time he was ever involved in campaign filings and finances for the Noble campaign was when staff encountered technical difficulties uploading the April quarterly report to the S.C. Ethics Commission website.

He further claimed the strain of the campaign was so bad that, at one point, Upson said he had to go to the hospital to get injections to stop a stress-induced muscle spasm in his neck. He also alleged Noble owed him $11,000 when the campaign ended.

When asked about the $11,000, Noble said he “didn’t know” about that, but said it was clear in the final month of the campaign that they weren’t going to have the money to keep paying people.

Noble said staff were informed of this and claimed they were also told, “If you want to stay, it’s your choice.”

But in the October 2018 complaint filed by Mary Reagan, Noble’s former press secretary, she also claimed there were issues with staffers not getting paid.

In the complaint that sparked the three-year probe by the ethics commission, Reagan wrote that three of the staffers sought legal counsel to try and pursue back-pay, but that their efforts were “in limbo.”

“This whole situation is atrocious and has caused a great deal of economic and emotional duress,” Reagan wrote in cursive.

Asked if the ethics investigation has soured him on running for political office in the future, Noble snorted out a laugh on the phone.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with that,” Noble said. “You run for office because you believe in things.”

These days, Noble said he’s more interested in creating a real-time, online education and cultural exchange program for schools around the world — not South Carolina politics.

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