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Senate: Israel trip at heart of ethics complaint, Cleary says

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

State Sen. Ray Cleary says he plans to fight allegations that he broke state law by using campaign funds for personal expenses. The Senate Ethics Committee delivered a report to Cleary last week citing five violations.

Cleary did not run for re-election this year. The committee’s allegations come from reports filed between April 2013 and January 2016. They claim Cleary:

• filed a false amendment to a campaign disclosure report to show he made a reimbursement to his campaign account;

• misrepresented the “payee and/or amount” of some expenditures;

• used campaign funds for personal expenses;

• failed to report some contributions;

• and failed to report some expenditures.

“I have not spent one dime of campaign money on personal expenses,” Cleary said. “They were all related to my duties as senator.”

Although the Ethics Committee letter doesn’t cite details of its complaint, Cleary said the principal issue is a trip to Israel organized by state Rep. Alan Clemmons of Myrtle Beach. “Seventeen people went to Israel,” he said. “Sixteen were allowed to use their campaign accounts. I was told it was personal.”

In 2015, records show Cleary amended his January campaign report to say he reimbursed his campaign $7,900 for a trip to Israel and Turkey. “Sixty to 70 percent of the time we were meeting with politicians,” he said.

The trip became an issue briefly in the campaign to pick Cleary’s successor. Rep. Stephen Goldfinch was among the lawmakers on the trip and opponents accused him of misusing campaign funds. He argued the trip was a legitimate expense because it dealt with economic development.

Goldfinch, who won the GOP nomination, declined to comment on the ethics complaint. He is unopposed in the general election.

With an ethics bill moving through the legislature this year, Cleary said he started reviewing his campaign filings in March. He asked committee staff, “Tell me what you didn’t like of what I expensed out.” They wouldn’t say, according to Cleary.

“I’m not going to be accused of a cover-up,” he said.

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Cleary has until July 22 to respond to the allegations. The committee will then schedule a hearing. If the allegations are upheld, the committee can issue a reprimand, assess a fine of up to $2,000 for each violation, require Cleary to forfeit any proceeds or recommend expulsion. Any decision by the committee can be appealed to the full Senate.

As a result of the review by a CPA and a campaign finance consultant, Cleary said he discovered two other expenses in his current report aren’t allowed. He said he will reimburse the campaign account $750 to donations made to the Boy Scouts and the Autism Foundation. “I only found that out yesterday,” he said.

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