ONE OF MY clearest memories about Operation Lost Trust was that it was a bombshell. Complete surprise. Came out of nowhere.
There’s just one problem with that memory: It’s wrong. Romanticized would be a nice way to describe it, sort of like the way some people talk about the “good old days” that weren’t really.
Oh, sure, it was a surprise that the U.S. attorney and the FBI had wired a sleazy lobbyist to run a sting operation that snared a tenth of our Legislature. But as I was reminded recently, the fact that corruption was a problem at the State House was not.
Common Cause’s John Crangle had asked me to sit down for an interview for a book he’s writing in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the probe, and he gave me a list of articles he wanted to talk about; most were pieces I had written in the early days after we found out about the investigation. But there was one from March 26, 1990 — nearly four months before the FBI seized the ethics reports of all of our legislators. It documented how the Senate Ethics Committee was, essentially, in hibernation.
A very quick search of the newspaper’s library showed that one of the major issues before the Legislature in 1989 and 1990 was ethics reform. Which the House passed and the Senate passed, in such different versions that they never reached a compromise, and the Legislature left the bill for dead when it ended the session less than a month before Lost Trust became public. There were so many articles that it’s hard to see how I had time to write about anything else that session.
There was the piece that resulted when four colleagues and I spent a Friday calling every member of the Legislature to find which ones were at an all-expenses-paid weekend at Hilton Head, courtesy of the S.C. Textile Manufacturers Association. We listed all 64 legislators we found in attendance, along with this priceless quote from then-Sen. John Land, who wasn’t: “I don’t think it’s anything wrong with the South Carolina textile people putting us up and inviting us down. I think that’s a legitimate way to curry favor, which is what lobbyists basically do. They try to make friends and cause you to be more inclined to support their positions, and of course that’s what the process is all about.”
There, in one brief paragraph, was a powerful legislator describing so perfectly the incestuous atmosphere that had invited and enabled the corruption that soon would send legislators to federal prison and the Legislature scrambling to put its house in order.
There was the piece I wrote about Wisconsin’s no-cup-of-coffee law, which barred lobbyists from buying anything for legislators, even a cup of coffee. The House would adopt that rule at its first meeting after Lost Trust broke, and it would wind up in the ethics law that the full Legislature eventually passed.
And then, on the day after the Legislature ended the 1990 session, there was what today seems like a prescient quote from Rep. Malloy McEachin, the primary sponsor of the ethics bill, predicting that the Legislature eventually would be pushed into reforming the lobbyist law: “Someday there will be a big scandal, the way these lobbyists operate up here.”
As I read through those old news stories, it was impossible not to think about what’s been going on in Columbia lately.
There have been efforts over the past two decades to address discrete problems with the 1991 ethics law, to close this or that loophole or clear up some badly written language. But the major reform push that is entering its third year is unlike any effort since that one that started in the run-up to Operation Lost Trust.
Perhaps that’s a coincidence. Or perhaps somehow people are able to sense when things have gotten so beyond control that all of creation groans in anticipation of correction. Perhaps all those lobbyists somehow knew what they were talking about this year when they kept telling me how eerily similar things felt around the State House to 1990.
Whether House Speaker Bobby Harrell broke the law or not when he used campaign money to fly up and down the East Coast or when he leaned on a state agency to change its rules to help out his private company or when he appointed his brother to the panel that serves as gatekeeper for would-be judges, his actions were unethical. Perhaps even corrupt.
Even if then-Rep. Nikki Haley was acting within the confines of the law when she tried to turn votes at the State House and turn around the bureaucrats at DHEC on behalf of the hospital that was paying her a six-figure salary for a job for which she had no apparent qualifications, her actions were unethical. Perhaps even corrupt. Ditto accepting more than $40,000 in consulting fees from a government contractor who hired her for her “good contacts.”
And these are just the most obvious examples of our elected officials profiting from their offices. At least two House members work for lobbying organizations; I’m told that if we knew more about how they earn a living, we would find many, many more legislators who routinely work to advance the legislative interests of their clients and employers — which might be why they haven’t managed to pass a law requiring themselves to provide that information.
There were signs in 1990; there are signs today.
The inducements to corrupt and corrupting behavior are quite different today. But they are no less pervasive, or poisonous. No less conducive to putting personal gain ahead of public good.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.