Political Corruption, Part 2: How We Got Here

Political Corruption, Part 2: How We Got Here

This is the second in an ongoing series about political corruption and ethics reform in South Carolina. This column outlines the origins, recent scandals and beginnings of efforts for ethics reform.

Directly across the street from the Statehouse on the corner of Gervais and Main Street in Columbia is a bar called The Whig. To get there, you descend a dank, dark and grimy covered stairway, go through an unmarked black door and into an even more dank, dark and grimy room.

On their website, The Whig proudly display a seal proclaiming themselves ‘North America’s Greatest Dive Bar.’ I don’t know about the greatest part but it’s sure a dive. Its principle virtue is that it is the shortest distance between the state legislative chambers and an abundance of alcohol and edible bar food.

It seemed like the perfect place to meet John Crangle and discuss the recent history of South Carolina’s corrupt politics and the attempts to clean it up – the ethics reform movement.

Crangle knows more about the sleaze of our state’s politics than anyone – or at least anyone who is on the right side of the law and not in jail. He had a new book published last year, a massive 606 page tome, entitled “Operation Lost Trust and the Ethics Reform Movement 1989-99.”

So, first about Crangle, Operation Lost Trust and where we are today with the ethics reform and the current ethics scandals. In later columns, I’ll focus on what can be done to break the back of the corrupt system we have today.

Crangle grew up in South Dakota and when we met he had just returned from a month of hunting and fishing in the frigid ice and snow of Minnesota and Wisconsin – pretty rugged stuff for a 76-year-old. He came to South Carolina in the 1960s and got a doctorate in history and political science and then a law degree from the University of South Carolina. For the last 30 years, he’s been the Director of Common Cause of South Carolina which monitors the Legislature and works for better government at all levels of the state.

(Full disclosure: I was on the board of Common Cause a few years back and I have enormous respect for John and the work he has done for our state over the years.)

To say that Crangle is committed is a gross understatement. A few years back when the national office of Common Cause was scaling back across the country, they cut off funding for the South Carolina operation – including the few bucks they paid Crangle as Director. But Crangle kept on. He’s continued his battles against the dark forces of the Statehouse and funded the fights from his own pocket. He also spent over $30,000 in his personal funds to research and publish his book.

As Crangle highlights in the book, corruption has been a part of our state’s political history since the beginning: “… the political culture of South Carolina was pathological and has been perhaps for three hundred years. Ever since it’s foundation as a colony in 1670, a small predatory elite had fastened itself on the economic, cultural and political life of the Carolina colony and afterward the state, exploiting it in ruthless, corrupt and irresponsible ways and using government to enriching themselves … the state’s political, legal and ethical system not only tolerated but actually promoted self-serving and corrupt behavior.”

Operation Lost Trust of the 1990’s was the beginning of our modern ethics scandals. Though there had been a so-called ethics act passed in 1975, Crangle characterized it as “a pious fraud and an open invitation to corruption of every sort.” And over the years, the legislators, lobbyists, politicians, political leeches and various other hangers on accepted this invitation as a matter of course.

To make a very, very long story (606 pages worth) very short, Operation Lost Trust began as a drug investigation and then became a vote buying, fraud and obstruction of justice sting operation. Federal prosecutors (not South Carolina prosecutors) produced 63 videotapes and 99 audio recordings that provided a detailed expose’ of outrageous revelations about how the whole corrupt system of legislators and lobbyists operated.

Among the most outrageous (and amusing) were the details of how one legislator (also a Baptist preacher) was running a $75 a night escort service out of his legislative office. After his activities came to light, he got in a fist fight with a woman in his congregation. It is unclear who won.

When all was said and done, 28 people were indicted including 18 legislators, one former legislator and judge, the Chairman of the State Development Board and Gov. Carroll Campbell’s chief fundraiser, another aide to Gov. Campbell, six lobbyists, one businessman and one Clemson University administrator.

Crangle said ‘“Lost Trust belatedly and finally alerted the people of South Carolina that state government was rotted out with corruption and filled with small time hustlers and crooks.”

As a result of the scandal, in 1991 a modest ethics reform legislation was passed that barred the most blatant and obvious forms of payments and corruption, and increased the regulation and reporting requirements for lobbyist and campaign finance activities.

Though this 1991 legislation was essential ‘Swiss cheese reform’ (more holes than cheese) a number of politicians have been successfully prosecuted under this law including Gov. Mark Sanford, Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Sen. Robert Ford.

So, where are we today?

As is outlined in Part 1 of this series of columns, what is rumored to be another big scandal is breaking; in December, former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill was indicted on 30 counts of corruption for using his legislative position to enrich himself with $1.3 million.

Stay tuned. Crangle says there is a lot more to come (though probably not on the dimension of Lost Trust) … and he should know.

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