The S.C. Ethics Commission on Thursday rejected an attorney’s efforts to have ethics charges against a Midlands school board member dropped.
Lexington-Richland 5 school board member Ken Loveless is accused of four counts of violating the state Ethics Act after he took part in school board actions involving Contract Construction, a firm building a new elementary school for the district with which Loveless’ company was doing business on another project.
Loveless is accused of inquiring about Contract Construction’s work on Piney Woods Elementary School in a letter on March 24, 2020, even though Loveless’ company had been awarded a more than $1 million contract with the company for a job outside the school district. He also is accused of improperly participating in board discussions of Piney Woods on June 15 and Sept. 14 of that year; and of visiting Piney Woods in June 2020 to review Contract Construction’s work.
But Loveless attorney Desa Ballard argued that none of those instances constitutes a government “action” as defined by the Ethics Act. She said taking “action” should be limited to voting on matters related to Contract Construction. If that differs from how the Ethics Commission has interpreted the Ethics Act in the past, then Ballard argued it was the commission that had gone beyond the language of the statute.
“The commission has issued many advisory opinions on this” that address officials abstaining from actions or deliberations on a matter in which a board member has a conflict, and even leaving a room when the matter is discussed. “But none of that is prohibited by the statute,” Ballard said.
After taking the actions outlined in the ethics commission’s complaint, Loveless received an opinion from ethics officials about his involvement in Piney Woods. Afterwards, he recused himself from any further involvement with the construction project. After she reviewed the case, Ballard said she would not have even have advised Loveless that he was required to recuse himself even then.
Arguing against the motion to dismiss, attorney Courtney Laster argued that limiting a government action to a member’s vote would go against the letter and the spirit of the law. “To change it would allow meddling by” someone who could abstain from voting on a matter but still “run around behind the scenes interfering with matters in which they have an economic interest,” Laster said.
Even if Loveless did not vote on Lexington-Richland 5’s contract with Contract Construction, Laster argued the contract was one continuous “action” that Loveless was attempting to influence and interfere with outside of a formal vote.
Commissioner Xavier Starkes asked Laster if the Ethics Act would apply if Loveless drove by the construction site and noticed something questionable. Would the law prohibit him from alerting the district superintendent about it?
“Probably,” Laster said, “because he shouldn’t be inserting himself into anything to do with Contract Construction. I know he believes his construction background gives him insight and that’s why his opinion is important, but the statutory language requires he not participate in it at all.”
Starkes did not elaborate on his denial of Ballard’s motion on Thursday, but said a written order will be issued in the case.
Loveless had previously asked the commission to move up a hearing on his ethics charges so that they could be dealt with before he stands for re-election to the Chapin-Irmo area school board on Nov. 8. The commission also turned down that request, ruling that state law prohibits the panel from taking action against a candidate within 60 days of an election.
Loveless has also subpoenaed several people involved with the district to testify about the charges, which have been resisted before the commission in other hearings. The commission has quashed or modified some of those subpoenas to limit what Loveless’ legal team can ask.