Politics & Government

SC ethics advocate creates ethics dilemma by giving books on corruption to lawmakers

A longtime S.C. ethics advocate inadvertently caused an ethics stir this week when he gave copies of his book about a State House corruption scandal to members of the General Assembly.

House Ethics Committee chairman Murrell Smith assured his 123 colleagues in the S.C. House on Thursday that they do not need to return John Crangle’s book about Operation Lost Trust or disclose the gift on their next ethics filing.

The Sumter Republican’s announcement, made on the House floor, was met with laughter.

Smith said his announcement was necessary after the Ethics Committee fielded “a number of questions” from lawmakers about what to do with Crangle’s 600-page tome, detailing one of the General Assembly’s darkest hours.

Smith said House Ethics Committee staff contacted Crangle and the book’s publisher to verify the book was worth less than $25 and, thus, would not need to be reported as a gift.

Crangle, the longtime former director of S.C. Common Cause, said he doesn’t understand why the gift became a big deal.

“I knew it wasn’t worth $25,” said Crangle, now with the S.C. Progressive Network. “I was one of the guys that advocated a ban on gifts by lobbyists, in particular. I knew that there was a $25 limit on gifts, and I knew the wholesale cost of the book was less than $25.”

State Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, who has worked with Crangle to push for tougher penalties on corrupt politicians, agreed. S.C. lawmakers get books on policy all the time, said Fanning, adding he doesn’t understand why Crangle’s book was singled out on the House floor.

“Much ado about nothing,” Fanning tweeted Thursday after Smith’s announcement.

Crangle said he gave the House and Senate more than 180 copies of his book in late December to remind legislators of Operation Lost Trust, the 1990 investigation that found widespread vote-selling in the General Assembly and led to criminal charges against 18 lawmakers. The books were delivered to individual lawmakers this week as they returned to Columbia to begin the 2019-20 legislative session.

“It’s a warning as to how easy it is to become corrupt,” said Crangle, a Columbia Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the House last November. “There are all sorts of people that want you to do something for them, and they’re willing to pay.”

State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, the Columbia Republican who defeated Crangle by 15 percentage points in November’s election, said Crangle’s gift highlights the awkward spot that legislators regularly find themselves in when a gift reaches their door.

Constituents and special interests routinely drop off gifts at lawmakers’ State House or business offices, leaving legislators to try to determine whether the gift is valuable enough to require an ethics filing. In recent years, lawmakers have received journals, ornaments, books, footballs, Girl Scout cookies and poinsettias, among a trove of other gifts.

“I don’t want to try to figure out if it’s worth more than $25 and, then, it become problematic,” Finlay said.

In many cases, it is easier just to return the gift, said state Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland.

In the case of Crangle’s book, House Ethics Committee staff first searched online and found a copy of the book listed for $39.95, Ethics chairman Smith said. Some lawmakers gave the book to the Ethics Committee to return to Crangle, not wanting to file it on their ethics forms.

Then, Smith said, staff contacted Crangle and his publisher. They provided documentation showing the book’s wholesale value was no more than $21.33.

“I’m going to let you be your own judge as to the value of that book,” Smith said on the House floor. “But, nonetheless, the book does not have to be reported because it is under the $25 limit.”

That leaves it up to lawmakers to decide whether to keep the book.

“I would know what to do with it,” Finlay told The State. Asked what that will be, the Republican replied, “That shall remain nameless.”

State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, said he was among the lawmakers who were confused when the book arrived, not knowing whether it was sent to the entire House or him alone.

“I’ll probably keep it,” Ballentine said. “It’ll look good in my collection.”

Smith said he enjoys learning about history and government, and is interested in the book.

“But it’s also 600 pages long,” said Smith, who became the House’s chief budget writer in November, “and I’m a little limited on time these days.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly described John Crangle as a lobbyist. He has not registered as a lobbyist since 2012.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.