By Ali Akhyari
In the winter of 2007, the Isle of Palms community was deeply divided when nine candidates campaigned for four City Council seats. Livability, vacation rentals, and the definition of community were fiery issues which instigated much debate. The Isle of Palms Community Association (IOPCA), made up mostly by business owners, sprang up as a response to the Isle of Palms Neighborhood Association (IOPNA) and hired an infamous political strategist by the name of Rod Shealy. Shealy made a name for himself when he hired an unemployed black man to run against a white incumbent in an attempt to help his sister win an election in 1990. It came as no surprise, then, that some sketchy tactics and muckraking were used during the campaign.
Although the worst of the campaigning tactics have more or less been set aside as a dark time in the island’s history, it is the money Shealy was given that has resurrected the brutal campaign.
On March 18 of this year, the South Carolina State Ethics Commission ruled that the IOPCA Committee had been in violation of three sections of the Ethics Reform Act after formal complaints had been filed in May of 2008. The result was a written warning and a $100 administrative fee. Reactions to the result are mixed.
“While the Isle of Palms Neighborhood Association did not initiate the complaint, we are satisfied that the IOPCA’s actions were judged to be illegal by the State Ethics Commission; but we are disappointed that the punishment was minimal. That the state recognizes that the IOPCA’s actions were illegal is laudable but falls short,” says Catherine Malloy, President of the Isle of Palms Neighborhood Association, whose candidates were the target of the IOPCA. “Unfortunately, it does nothing for our organization and our community which continues to experience the fallout from the IOPCA’s duplicity.”
The IOPCA Committee worked to influence the 2007 election by running negative ads against candidates Jane McMackin, Brian Duffy, Ralph Piening, and Mike Loftus, all of whom were supported by the Neighborhood Association. One ad depicted McMackin as a puppet master controlling Duffy, Piening, and Loftus. Larry Pierson, a local real estate agent and the IOPCA’s president at the time, said that “humor” was being used in their mailings. Other tactics included misrepresenting the State’s Republican Party and taking political responsibility for Governor Mark Sanford’s visit to the island. The State’s Republican Party denounced the tactics and Sanford’s office declared that the Governor had not come on behalf of any political group. While these tactics might have been considered shameful by some, it was the mishandling of a relatively small amount of money that got the group in trouble.
The Ethics Commission stated that Shealy deposited a $5000 check from the IOPCA for the Committee’s campaign into his personal account and used it for flyers, road signs, and mailings. However, Shealy did not keep a record of how the money was spent. Furthermore, he said it would be impossible to dissect his account as he was simultaneously running other campaigns and that the expenditures could have been for multiple clients. The Ethics Reform Act requires that a detailed report of campaign expenditures be kept. There is also a limitation of $3500 that an organization can accept from a single entity in a calendar year.
Mel Miles was a participating member of the IOPCA before it disbanded about a year ago. Miles says that they did not purposely break any laws and would not have given more than $3500 if they had known it was wrong. Shealy, he said, did not give them any indication that the $5000 contribution was inappropriate.
“We didn’t have experience in setting this up,” Miles said. He says that the Commission chalked the violations up to an “administrative error”, which would explain the relatively minor fine. It was Shealy who was responsible for filing with the Ethics Commission.
Indeed, it is strange that a campaign veteran like Shealy, who is so well versed in politi-cal campaigns, would be unaware of the $3500 limitation or the fact that he needed to keep track of campaign spending. Miles contends that they trusted Shealy to keep things in order.
If indeed the violations were the results of misplaced trust and/or the mistake of a politi-cal strategist, then the minor punishment seems to fit the crime as it was the IOPCA who received the judgment and not Shealy. However, it may seem a bit anti-climactic when weighted against the impacts of the campaign on the community.
“When a group hires someone who is known to have broken the law and has been convicted of a federal election law violation to influence the outcome of a local election, they also bear responsibility for the negative consequences,” Malloy says. “[The IOPCA] did not have the welfare of the IOP community at heart. In fact, their actions were meant to drive the residents away.” She says that the emotional remnants of the IOPCA’s decision to enlist Shealy remain with many residents to this day.
Mike Loftus, one of three candidates who survived the 2007 assault, has not forgotten the damage left by the campaign.
“Rod Shealy and the IOPCA headed by Larry Pierson unfairly subjected the voters of Isle of Palms to wave after wave of misinformation and in many cases pure lies, in or-der to advance their candidates,” he said. “I firmly believe any candidate who uses Rod Shealy should be questioned by the voters.”
Miles says that the Ethics Commission’s result is not worthy of being in the news and will only work to further divide a community that needs to be united. While the Neigh-borhood Association was not responsible for filing the complaint which launched the investigation, Miles says that the “other side” was only trying to “stir things up” with a complaint in the first place.
“I guarantee that we [IOPCA] could’ve filed something if we looked in the fine print,” Miles said. Any discussion on the matter only works to keep the community fighting over past issues instead of being united, he adds.
But perhaps there can be some new bridges built over the divides, and the Commis-sion’s wrist-slapping decision will be the ribbon cutting ceremony symbolizing a brigh-ter day, where fire tempered emotions are set aside and residents can see each other as neighbors.