In 2006, Charleston restaurateur Robert Barber lost one of the closest statewide elections in South Carolina history. Republican incumbent Lt. Gov. André Bauer held on to his seat by less than 0.3 percent. Now, he’s returning to the ballot, challenging State Comptroller Richard Eckstrom.
A former school board member and state legislator, Barber says his past campaigns have “had a lot to do with a combination of frustration and impatience with the job being done, along with a general inclination and desire to serve the public in that capacity.”
South Carolina’s leaders have provided more than enough comedian fodder, with Gov. Mark Sanford taking mysterious trips to Argentina, former Treasurer Thomas Ravenel going to prison for handing out cocaine to his friends, and Congressman Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” from the cheap seats at a presidential address.
Eckstrom has not escaped the spotlight, though. After refunding the state $669 in 2006 for taking a state car on a family vacation to Minnesota, Eckstrom was parodied in an opening sketch on Saturday Night Live.
“Whether it’s a total violation of any kind of law is another question. But it’s terrible judgment, clearly,” Barber says.
But the embarrassment isn’t just on the comedy circuit. The comptroller general is expected to keep the state’s books balanced and review expenses and bills.
Eckstrom, who did not return calls seeking comment, has prided himself on greater transparency — opening up credit card charges and other state spending to public scrutiny. But Barber points to two recent headlines that raise questions about the department’s oversight.
In April, state officials found an accounting error by the Department of Revenue that led budget writers to spend $60 million they didn’t have.
And, this summer, Paul Timothy Moore, former finance director for the Department of Social Services, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing more than $5 million from the state over four years in a scheme that involved writing checks to strippers and possibly hundreds of other people. They’d take a cut and Moore would take the rest. The fraud wasn’t found until someone involved contacted authorities.
“If there isn’t a process, there should be a process to pick up on that stuff immediately,” Barber says. “Any of that could have been addressed by a competent, successful small business owner who has to pay attention to details.”
As a business owner, Barber says he’s learned to watch his bottom line, while staying connected with “everyday, hard-working people.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever get enough business folks up there who pay taxes and are concerned about taxes and the taxpayer,” Barber says.
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