NATIONAL NEWS

SC lawmakers want to fire comptroller for $3.5B error

Mar 15, 2023, 2:48 PM

FILE - South Carolina Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom holds up a book he wanted to present to ...

FILE - South Carolina Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom holds up a book he wanted to present to his new Chief of Staff James Holly during his introduction at the Budget and Control Board meeting, Aug. 13, 2009, in Columbia, S.C. Pressure is mounting for Eckstrom after a $3.5B accounting error. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s state comptroller should be fired over a $3.5 billion accounting error and the office he runs should be gutted, lawmakers investigating the mistake said in a report Wednesday.

Republican Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom has attracted mounting scrutiny since he first told lawmakers last month that he had unintentionally exaggerated the state’s cash position by $3.5 billion by overstating the amount the state had sent to colleges and universities.

A $12 million coding error in 2007 got compounded by a shift beginning in 2011 from one accounting system to another, Eckstrom has said. The reporting confusion then led to a double counting of state cash transferred to colleges and universities. By 2017, the sum of overstated funds had grown to $1.3 billion. That number has nearly tripled in the following years as South Carolina sent more and more money to higher education.

In its Wednesday report, the Senate Finance Constitutional Subcommittee concluded Eckstrom failed to do his job properly and should be removed from office. In South Carolina the comptroller — the state’s chief accountant — is elected.

The panel recommended that Eckstrom’s office be dismantled and that its duties be transferred to one or more other agencies.

Eckstrom released a statement Wednesday insisting that his team worked “tirelessly to identify the cause of a complex problem.”

“Once we identified the cause of the problem, we worked with stakeholders to correct it,” Eckstrom said. He said that going forward, he planned advocate making the comptroller’s office an appointed position.

“I will not be distracted by anyone from the work ahead of us, work voters elected me to do during this term,” he said.

Subcommittee members determined that Eckstrom’s actions did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. But they urged South Carolina’s General Assembly to relieve the comptroller of his position “for willful neglect of duty,” as allowed by the state Constitution. State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, an elected Republican, said his office could absorb the main responsibilities of the comptroller.

The subcommittee report capped a tumultuous five weeks for the 20-year veteran of a state agency that typically flies under the public radar.

The comptroller general oversees the state’s annual financial report. That includes determining which cash expenditures to include or exclude in the year-end report, a process also known as “mapping,” according to Department of Administration Executive Director Marcia Adams. The task got more complicated during a gradual shift to a new statewide information system between 2011 and 2017.

Adams said Eckstrom incorrectly mapped money the state sent to higher education. She said the mistake amounted to “human error” but stopped short of calling it “negligence.”

For 10 years, Eckstrom did not respond to warnings that a “material weakness” existed in the comptroller general’s office, according to state Auditor George Kennedy. He said the internal controls over the annual report’s preparation were insufficient to detect and correct errors in a timely manner. Around 2017, Kennedy said his office told Eckstrom’s team that a full reconciliation would help. That did not happen until last spring.

Eckstrom partially blamed the error on communication problems with the treasurer’s office as the two teams operated on different internal accounting systems. But Loftis, the state treasurer, said no issues had ever been brought to his attention.

Eckstrom appeared multiple times before the Senate Finance Constitutional Subcommittee after he first publicly revealed the news on Feb. 9. His inconsistent testimony the following week alarmed members leading the probe.

On March 7, Eckstrom said that everyone involved knew the numbers did not line up perfectly, Eckstrom said, but nobody believed they amounted to “a material difference.”

“I wasn’t happy with the fact that we did reconciliations year after year that didn’t tie out precisely,” he said, adding he hired personnel to identify the problem.

Senators’ recommendations came as House lawmakers similarly took aim at the embattled comptroller general.

On March 2, Republican Rep. Gil Gatch and Democratic Rep. Heather Bauer called for an impeachment inquiry into whether Eckstrom committed serious misconduct including “dereliction of duty” and “breach of the public trust.”

This week, Bauer sponsored an amendment to cut the comptroller general’s newly increased $151,000 salary down to $1 during the remainder of Eckstrom’s time in office. The amendment passed by a 104-7 vote.

The budgeting process must undergo several more steps to cement the salary change. House Speaker Murrell Smith called it a “tripartisan agreement” since it garnered support from Republicans, Democrats and the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has said that elections, not weaponized impeachments, are the proper form of accountability. Eckstrom ran unopposed in this fall’s general election. His name is not set to appear on a ballot until 2026.

—-

Associated Press reporters Jeffrey Collins and Leah Willingham contributed to this report. James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

National News

Associated Press

At least 6 heat-related deaths reported in metro Phoenix so far this year as high hits 115 degrees

PHOENIX (AP) — At least six people have died from heat-related causes this year so far in sizzling metro Phoenix, where the temperatures this week hit 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius), Arizona’s Maricopa Department of Public Health reported this week. Another 87 deaths are under investigation for possible heat-related causes through last Saturday, public health […]

35 minutes ago

Associated Press

New York county reaches $1.75 million settlement with family of man fatally shot by police in 2011

SELDEN, N.Y. (AP) — A New York county has reached a $1.75 million settlement with the family of a man shot and killed by police in his home in 2011. Suffolk County, on Long Island, has agreed to pay the settlement to the family of Kevin Callahan, County Legislator Rob Trotta, who chairs the Ways […]

40 minutes ago

Associated Press

North Carolina lawmakers appeal judge’s decision blocking abortion-pill restrictions

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republican legislative leaders are appealing portions of a federal judge’s order this month that blocked several state laws that restrict how abortion pills can be dispensed, including the requirement that only physicians can provide the drugs to patients. Lawyers for Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Texas medical panel issues new guidelines for doctors but no specific exceptions for abortion ban

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas medical panel on Friday approved guidance for doctors working under one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans but refused to list specific exceptions to the law, which doctors have complained is dangerously unclear. The decision by the Texas Medical Board came less than a month after the state […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Inmate asks court to block second nitrogen execution in Alabama

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Lawyers for an Alabama inmate on Friday asked a judge to block the nation’s second scheduled execution using nitrogen gas, arguing the first was a “horrific scene” that violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Alan Eugene Miller, who survived a 2022 lethal injection attempt, is scheduled to be executed […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Shooting at grocery store in south Arkansas kills 2 and wounds 8 others, police say

FORDYCE, Ark. (AP) — Two people were killed and eight wounded in a shooting that occurred Friday at a grocery store in south Arkansas, police said. Arkansas State Police said the shooting occurred at the Mad Butcher grocery store in Fordyce and that the suspected shooter was critically injured after being shot by police. A […]

3 hours ago

SC lawmakers want to fire comptroller for $3.5B error