Some Republican lawmakers say they knew in July that Lt. Gov. Ken Ard either was going to be removed from the state’s No. 2-ranking office or resign.
July was when a State Ethics Commission investigation found the now-former lieutenant governor had misled investigators about using campaign cash to buy personal items, including iPads and a cellphone plan.
That prediction came true Friday, as Ard entered a guilty plea to criminal election law violations and was sentenced to five years probation, a fine and community service.
For the months in between, however, many of the state’s political leaders were in the dark as to what was going on as the State Grand Jury considered Ard’s fate.
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However, there were clues.
• Witnesses appeared before that Grand Jury and, afterward, told others what they had been asked to testify about.
• Then, the witnesses quit appearing, a move that was read by some to mean the end was near.
• Finally, state Attorney General Alan Wilson met secretly Thursday with the Legislature’s two top officers.
The accusations that have dogged Ard for months also have dogged state senators, who anticipated a major political shakeup if Ard were to lose his post.
The stakes were big.
If Ard, a Florence Republican, stepped down and was succeeded by Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, senators would have to elect a new Senate leader, who would have major sway over what legislation is passed and would oversee a politically charged reshuffling of state Senate committee assignments. And all during an election year, when every member of the General Assembly is running and the public is watching closely.
Some lawmakers say they were clueless about what was happening behind-the-scenes in the Ard case. Others – of the dozen lawmakers and State House sources that The State newspaper interviewed for this story – say they kept tabs on the Grand Jury’s progress through witnesses, who were allowed to speak with people not involved in the case. Still others relied on rumors making their way around the Capitol.
Some – including state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington – say it was clear that Ard’s days were numbered from the State Ethics Commission ruling in July.
“In my mind, when I read that (ruling), I knew he was in serious trouble, that he probably wasn’t going to stay in the job,” said Quinn, a longtime friend of Attorney General Wilson, who sent Ard’s case to the Grand Jury, and the son of Republican political consultant Richard Quinn, who advises Wilson and soon-to-be Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican.
Quinn said Friday that Wilson was tight-lipped throughout the investigation, never speaking about it to him or anyone else he knows of.
“But I’ve been around long enough. And if you read (the ruling), Ard admitted to perjury,” Quinn said. “It was a foregone conclusion he was in serious trouble from the start.”
‘Knew it was coming’
Before the drama of the past few days – including speculation about Ard’s resignation and who would become lieutenant governor – there was silence.
Months of silence followed Wilson’s decision to send Ard’s case to the Grand Jury.
Buzz did not begin to build until a couple of weeks ago.
Witnesses who were supposed to testify before the Grand Jury were not being called – signaling that a plea agreement between Ard and the state likely had been reached.
And, in private one-on-one conversations with some state senators, Ard implied that the end was near.
“Several of us sort of knew it was coming, although I don’t think any of us knew exactly when,” said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who, in the Senate reshuffling, replaces McConnell as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the Senate’s most influential committee.
“We had gotten the impression even from the lieutenant governor (Ken Ard) in what little bit he had said to a few individuals. He was having a tough time with all of this and struggling. And we knew that process had to be coming to an end because it had been going on for so long.”
the hold up?’
The fact the Grand Jury investigation took almost nine months raised questions among Democrats, the Senate’s minority party.
Two weeks ago, state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, took to the Senate floor to call on Republican Wilson to hurry up and finish the investigation for the sake of Republican Ard and the state.
“I kept wondering, ‘What is the hold up? Why is this taking so long? And is it being done for political reasons?’ ” Hutto said. “I can’t say at this point if that happened or not.”
Hutto said he was suspicious of the investigation dragging out until only days remained before filing for state offices begins on March 16.
“Maybe it just took that long for the investigation to wrap up, and that’s fine if that’s the case. But it’s raised some red flags for me,” Hutto said.
Friday, the state Attorney General’s Office said politics had nothing to do with the investigation’s timing.
“The Democrats can attempt to make political hay out of this until their hearts are content – nothing changes the conclusions of the state Grand Jury,” said Mark Plowden, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. “The state grand jurors are to be commended for their diligent and efficient work, not criticized by ill-informed politicians.
Political consultant Richard Quinn, whose clients include Wilson and McConnell, said, in fact, the timing of Ard’s ouster worked against – not in favor – of his clients and other elected officials.
“The timing could not be worse. Politically speaking, you would want this decision to come way before or way after filing (opens),” he said. “Otherwise, it causes controversy. To me, it’s further proof that politics had nothing to do with this decision.”
McConnell’s sleepless night
Thursday was the final tipping point.
That day, Attorney General Wilson met with the State House’s top brass, McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, to discuss the Ard case and its impact that its impending resolution would have on succession at the State House.
The briefing was approved, provided it and the subject were not disclosed, by an order that Wilson requested and was granted by a judge, the Attorney General’s Office confirmed.
That meeting gave McConnell a crucial heads-up. He would be called upon to become the new lieutenant governor.
But McConnell had options to consider.
One possibility: McConnell could step down from his powerful leadership post to avoid becoming lieutenant governor, then once an interim Senate leader was named and promoted to lieutenant governor, McConnell could turn around and run to be re-elected Senate president pro tem.
Another possibility: McConnell could refuse to give up his post as Senate president pro tem and wait to see if that move was challenged in court.
After a sleepless Thursday night, McConnell said he decided he would become lieutenant governor because the state Constitution clearly required him to do so.
“He and I had several good discussions about it early in this week,” said Sen. Martin, who has been friends with McConnell for about 30 years. “I could tell he was really having trouble with it. But I knew he’d, ultimately, come down on the side of the Constitution.
“This is something he will be remembered for the most. He’ll always be looked at as ... someone who understood their obligations under the Constitution and took it very seriously.”
S.C.’s next lieutenant governor is?
Still, McConnell may not be lieutenant governor for long. Speculation is growing McConnell will file to run in a special election to reclaim his Senate seat.
Friday, fellow Lowcountry leader, state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, issued a press release, encouraging McConnell to run for the Senate again.
McConnell said he would not rule that out.
Tuesday, state senators will reconvene in Columbia to elect a new Senate president pro tempore.
If McConnell seeks to reclaim his Senate seat, whoever wins Tuesday’s election could be South Carolina’s next lieutenant governor.