I DIDN’T KNOW Ron Cobb back when he was buying up a tenth of our Legislature for the FBI.
Didn’t even recognize his picture when FBI agents subpoenaed campaign disclosure reports for all 170 legislators, and legislators and fellow lobbyists started whispering that Mr. Cobb was somehow involved in what would come to be known as Operation Lost Trust.
In fact, while I would learn and write a lot about the cigar-chomping lobbyist who hummed his signature “It’s a bidness doing pleasure with you” while the hidden video camera recorded him counting out crisp $100 bills for legislators who promised to support his horse-gambling bill, I didn’t actually meet him until five years later.
It was June 26, 1995, and I was working on a “where are they now” package of news articles for the upcoming five-year anniversary of Lost Trust becoming public. We met near the interstate, and I followed him to his townhouse overlooking the 10th hole of one of Greenville’s premier golf courses.
Longtime girlfriend-turned-wife Shelley was there to greet us, and they showed off their rooftop garden, where Ron was growing tomatoes and cucumbers, and the Stairmaster he said he used for 10 to 15 minutes every day after work, and he talked about how his values had changed since his career as a lobbyist ended. Of course we also talked about Lost Trust and the Legislature and what he thought had and hadn’t changed, and Shelley talked as much as Ron did.
I don’t remember all those details; I got them from reviewing my notes from our lengthy visit. The only clear memories I have of that rarefied encounter are the rooftop and Bella — the cat who kept running toward the wall and hurling herself into it. Ron and Shelley laughed each time, and assured me the cat was fine, that she just did that for attention.
But while Mr. Cobb left little impression on me — perhaps because he was precisely as I knew he would be from all those years of talking to others about him — he left an impression on our state, far beyond the 17 legislators and 10 government officials and lobbyists he helped convict on federal corruption and bribery charges. For good or for ill — and I believe for good — he changed our state more than most legislators and many governors ever did.
Ron Cobb died Sunday, a mutual friend tells me from cancer. He was 67.
You can argue that the feds would have found someone else to sting our legislators if he had refused — just like you can argue that God would have found someone else for his exponentially more important job if Saul of Tarsus had refused. But the fact is that like St. Paul, it was Ron Cobb who said yes, and so he gets the credit.
Ron Cobb made legislators terrified of their best friends — the lobbyists who took them to lunch and dinner and drinking in the evening, showered them with gifts, financed their election campaigns, even sent them on lavish vacations. He embarrassed them by showing the world that “you can buy South Carolina politicians at Kmart,” as one disgusted woman told The Miami Herald. (One House member went for “a couple of suits and five or six shirts.”)
The videotapes — and, more importantly, the news articles that I and a lot of other reporters wrote on the ugly underside of legislative life that lobbyists and legislators were suddenly willing to talk about — spurred change. Reformers pushed through ethics, lobbying and campaign finance reforms that had languished for years, ending the inadvertent seduction of corruption that occurred when the perfectly legal free lunch turned into the free dinner and the free evening’s entertainment and then free resort vacation — and the now-easy agreement to vote however the patron asked.
Our news department launched a yearlong examination of how the Legislative State produced not only corruption but a hapless government that answered to no one, and pushed along by that “Power Failure” series, Lost Trust and Gov. Carroll Campbell, the Legislature voted two years later to hand a third of the government over to the governor.
Lawmakers unleashed the powerful State Grand Jury to investigate political corruption cases. They passed a reporter shield law after a judge ordered me and three other reporters held in federal custody for two days for refusing to testify in one of the trials. And voters elected a target of an earlier vote-buying scandal to fill an open Senate seat in the middle of all this, lawmakers amended the constitution to bar felons from holding office until 15 years after they completed their sentences.
There are still a lot of problems with the way our government operates — the Legislature still holds far too much power over state and local agencies, too many agencies still effectively answer to no one, the ethics law even after this year’s improvements remains far short of what it should be.
But those reforms did a lot of good. And Ron Cobb paved the way for every one of them.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.