By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina Republican Lieutenant Governor Ken Ard resigned on Friday just hours before pleading guilty to seven criminal counts of violating ethics laws by misusing campaign money.
Ard entered his guilty plea in the Richland County Court in Columbia and was given a suspended seven-year sentence that will keep him out of prison if he performs 300 hours of community service and pays $5,000 in fines. He could have faced seven years in prison if convicted at trial.
Ard resigned from office shortly before State Attorney General Alan Wilson announced that a grand jury had indicted him. Wilson said in a statement that Ard was charged with trying "to create the false appearance of a groundswell of political support through fictitious or bogus campaign contributions."
"To our knowledge, the creation of such a fictitious campaign has never been criminally charged before in this state's history," Wilson said.
Tens of thousands of dollars were funneled from Ard to others and then back to his campaign or were phantom contributions that were not made by the person listed or in the amount reported, he said.
Ard, 48, was elected in 2010 at the same time that a wave of Tea Party fervor swept Republican Governor Nikki Haley into office as the state's first female governor. Ard was fined more than $60,000 last year by the state ethics commission for misusing campaign money for personal trips, tickets, airfare, lodging, clothing, fuel and electronic equipment.
The ethics complaint against him, which ultimately led to the criminal charges, quoted Ard as telling a local newspaper, "I've got a vast amount of my personal wealth tied up in this campaign and I'm just trying to recoup as much of that as I can."
"There are no excuses nor is there need to share blame," Ard said in a statement on Friday. "It is my fault that the events of the past year have taken place." The job of lieutenant governor in South Carolina is largely ceremonial and includes presiding over the state Senate. Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell announced that by state law, he will become lieutenant governor.
(Reporting By Harriet McLeod; Editing by Jane Sutton and Paul Thomasch)