Bid opens to fire SC auditor over $3.5 billion accounting error

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers, angered by a $3.5 billion accounting error by the state audit office, began Thursday, a day after calls for the official to be fired He resigns or is fired.

Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom told senators last month he did it unintentionally overstepped the state’s treasury by $3.5 billion by exaggerating the amount the state had sent to colleges and universities for a decade. He has signaled that he will not resign.

The fault was not in the actual cash, but in the way the state reports its balance sheets. It could hurt South Carolina’s credit rating and destroy any confidence that a large number of lawmakers in the Republican-dominated state had in Eckstrom.

A resolution introduced Thursday will require a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate to trigger a state constitutional provision that says the governor should impeach Eckstrom for “willful dereliction of duty.”

The constitution allows Eckstrom a hearing in his own defense, although the exact procedure is not clear. Several senators have not recalled this procedure having been used since it was written into the constitution more than 50 years ago.

Chartered Accountant Eckstrom, 74, served 20 years as an auditor general and before that four years as state treasurer.

“For at least a decade we have known that he signed his name, Richard Eckstrom, CPA, on our state’s final financial document, and every year he has been wrong,” said Republican Sen. Larry Grooms, who supports the resolution.

Grooms said lawmakers must act because Eckstrom is not doing “the honorable thing” and resigning.

Thirty-eight out of 46 senators have agreed to support the proposal. Only 30 are needed to cross the two-thirds hurdle. The resolution requires 83 out of 124 votes in the House of Representatives.

Grooms said he expects once Eckstrom deals with the Senate that he will take up other matters his subcommittee has recommended, such as dissolving his agency and transferring its responsibilities to other offices.

The blunder began in 2007 with a $12 million coding error and was amplified when the state switched accounting systems in 2011, Eckstrom told senators at hearings in recent weeks.

State money sent to colleges and universities was double-counted, and auditors said Eckstrom ignored repeated warnings about the problem. They said he waited five years to conduct a full review of the accounts, which eventually helped uncover the problem about a year ago.

Eckstrom responded to the Senate report Wednesday with a statement that he would not give up. He said his office worked tirelessly to find and then fix the problem, which first surfaced in 2013. The problem was only reported to lawmakers or others in government months ago.

Eckstrom said he would support a constitutional amendment that would make his job governor-appointed rather than elected, but in the meantime, “I won’t let anyone distract me from the work that lies ahead, work that the electorate elected me to do during this term have.”

Eckstrom has run unopposed in the last two elections and most recently had a challenger in the 2010 Republican primary.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster said last week that voters should hold Eckstrom accountable, not impeached.

The resolution calls for a lower level of misconduct of willful dereliction of duty where an impeachment trial under the Constitution requires “grave crimes or serious misconduct.”

McMaster’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether Thursday’s lawmakers’ resolution had changed its thinking.

What exactly happens next is not known. The constitution grants Eckstrom a hearing if he chooses to do so.

“We’re currently consulting with Archives and History to ensure we’re following the right procedures,” Grooms said. “He will have an opportunity to refute this.”

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