Secessionist party now official with Secretary of State's Office after filing issue

WCIV Photo/Graphic

UPDATE 7:55 p.m. - 7/6/2017


An organization recently involved in controversy in South Carolina was briefly under the microscope of the South Carolina Secretary of State’s Office this week.

The South Carolina Secessionist Party was due to receive a notice of violation Thursday from the office of Secretary of State Mark Hammond. The purpose of the notice – to inform the group it must either register as a 501(c)4 not for profit organization soliciting donations or dispute the claim within 15 days, or possibly face a fine of $2,000.

Shannon Wiley, General Counsel for the Secretary of State’s Office said the law requiring not for profit organizations to register in South Carolina is all about clarity and protecting people contributing to what they believe is a charitable organization.

Wiley said the notice is the first time the organization has been contacted by the Secretary of State’s Office regarding the issue.

“At this juncture it looks like they are soliciting on their website. They indicated that they are 501(c)4 organization,” Wiley said Wednesday. “…Based on the information on their website, they do in fact need to register.”

When contacted about the Secretary of State’s Office’s plan, chairman and founder of the South Carolina Secessionist Party James Bessenger was surprised.

Bessenger promised that the Secretary of State’s Office would have his organization’s official response by the end of the day Thursday. He admitted the group’s willingness to become compliant is not without skepticism and a little frustration. But when Bessenger contacted the Secretary of State he learned that his organization qualified for an exemption.

Wiley explained that if donations of the group do not exceed $7,500 they may qualify for an exemption, but that still requires an annual application and filing “one way or another.” In such a case of an exemption approval, the $50 filing fee is waived.

By close of business Thursday Wiley confirmed the group had completed all necessary paperwork and was "official." The exemption expires on May 15, 2018. At that time, the group will need to resubmit for the exemption.

Bessenger questioned having to register the South Carolina Secessionist Party because it is not a charitable organization. “We don’t give back to the community,” he said.

“This is probably just somebody trying to throw mud in our face and just digging,” Bessenger said. “…It took them two years to do it, so well done.”

But Wiley points out the trigger for organizations is accepting donations, not distributing them. The minute the party began accepting donations, a registration or application requesting exemption was required.

Wiley doesn’t want the issue to be taken out of context. She said ultimately the goal of the Secretary of State’s Office is to be fair to all involved in such situations by providing clarity to possible donors and to organizations working to learn and follow the law. She said there needs to be an open dialog.

“Whenever we do issue a violation or a fine, we really do want the recipient to give us a call if they have concerns or questions,” Wiley said.

The issue the South Carolina Secessionist Party dealt with this week is not uncommon in South Carolina. Wiley said a good number of organizations are regularly found not in compliance.

“We do depend on citizens a great deal to let us know if an organization is soliciting them and they have concerns,” she said.

Public controversy

In July of 2016 the secessionist party threatened to file a lawsuit against Gov. Nikki Haley over the raising of the CCU flag on the Statehouse dome. The group argued the action violated the Heritage Act, which requires a two-thirds vote by lawmakers in order to change or remove historical items that fly over the Capitol Dome. Bessenger said the lawsuit never moved forward due to the expense of the litigation process and his belief no one would prosecute the governor.

More recently, the group has been at the center of “flaggings” it has organized in which Confederate flags were raised in protest of events in Summerville, at the College of Charleston and after disagreement with the City of Charleston. Some members of the community have also been critical of the group handing out Confederate battle flags to children at local events.

On its Facebook page the group has promised to hold other flagging events at Folly Beach and has flaggings currently scheduled for July 8 in Charleston and at the Statehouse on July 10 – the anniversary of the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds.

“Maybe a couple weeks of Flagging Folly Beach are in order,” reads a post on the organization’s Facebook page. “That all depends on the mayor. Maybe he should reach out to the mayor of Summerville, who made the decision to not get involved in this type of public discourse and kept Summerville from further flagging.”

The threat of flagging at Folly Beach follows a back and forth over the painting of the Folly Boat during which images painted by the secessionist party were painted over by other groups.

In a Wednesday post on Facebook, the organization directs those interested in making donations to an online fundraising account that as of Thursday afternoon had raised more than $1,000. The account appears to have been collecting donations dating back to July 2016.

In the post the secessionist party requests help to “help Dixie.” It also goes on to promote itself as a 501(c)4 non-profit.

“(We’ve received) several thousand dollars but all that money is used for ordering things like the flags we hand out, the stickers we hand out, honors for guest speakers, things like that,” Bessenger said. “All of our money that comes in, by the end of the year, it’s almost all gone again. Nobody draws any salaries, nobody gets paid, we don’t do anything like that, all of that money goes straight back into materials.”

Bessenger said the issue this week will not keep the group from “doing what we’ve been doing.” Flaggings will continue, he said.

“This happens to be one of those regulations we may have missed, but again, we’ve confirmed with the state department, nothing we’ve done is criminal, no one is in any trouble and no one is getting shut down,” Bessenger said.

* ABC News 4's Caroline Balchunas contributed to this report.

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