South Carolina lawmakers began efforts Thursday to fire Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom after a $3.5 billion accounting blunder. The move comes one day after Eckstrom was strongly advised to quit or be fired.
The 74-year-old seasoned public accountant told senators in March he unintentionally exaggerated the state’s cash position by $3.5 billion by overstating the amount sent to colleges and universities for approximately a decade, according to The Associated Press.
Eckstrom has been in his position for 20 years and spent four years during the 90s as the state treasurer.
Though the error was not in actual cash, it affects the way the state reports its balance sheets and could negatively impact South Carolina’s credit rating. The error has also eroded confidence that many lawmakers across party lines had in the seasoned accountant, The AP reported.
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“At least for a decade we know that he has signed his name, Richard Eckstrom, CPA, on our state’s closing financial document and every year he has been wrong,” said Republican Sen. Larry Grooms.
Grooms is the sponsor of a resolution introduced in the state legislature Thursday seeking a two-thirds vote from the House and Senate to trigger a state constitutional provision that would allow Gov. Henry McMaster to remove Eckstrom for “willful neglect of duty.”
Of the state’s 46 senators, 38 of them signed on to sponsor the proposal – and only 30 are needed to hit the two-thirds threshold. In the House, 83 out of 124 representatives need to sign on for the resolution to pass.
Grooms said the legislature needs to act because Eckstrom is not doing the “honorable thing” by refusing to resign.
According to The AP, McMaster said last week Eckstrom should be held accountable by voters instead of being impeached by lawmakers. His office said Thursday he had not changed his mind.
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The constitution allows Eckstrom a hearing in his own defense if that is what he wants, though the exact procedure isn’t clear. Several senators also could not remember the process being used since it was added more than 50 years ago.
“We’re consulting… right now to ensure we do the correct procedures,” Grooms said. “He’ll have an opportunity to rebut.”
Eckstrom responded to the Wednesday Senate report by stating he isn’t quitting, adding that his office worked “tirelessly” to find and fix the problem in 2013. The AP said the problem wasn’t reported to lawmakers or government officials until months ago.
The error started as a $12 million coding error in 2007 and was compounded when the state switched accounting systems four years later in 2011, according to what Eckstrom has told senators at recent hearings.
It was discovered that state cash transferred to colleges and universities was being counted twice and Eckstrom allegedly ignored repeated warnings from auditors. He is also accused of waiting five years to conduct a full review of accounts that eventually assisted in uncovering the problem about a year ago.
Grooms said once Eckstrom is dealt with, he expects the Senate will take up other matters his subcommittee recommended like dismantling his agency and sending duties to other offices.
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Eckstrom has run unopposed in the past two elections. He last had a challenger in the Republican primary in 2010.
He said he would support a constitutional amendment making his job one appointed by the governor, but in the meantime, he will be focusing on the job he was elected to do, adding that he will not be “distracted by anyone.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.