Ethics watchdog on corruption in South Carolina in the 90s and today
With two more arrests in the past week, the number of current and former S.C. lawmakers currently facing criminal charges grew to six.
State Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Charleston, accused of drunken driving, and state Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, accused of assaulting a fellow lawmaker, join four others facing charges in court. The other four face corruption charges – state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland; state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington; and former state Reps. Tracy Edge, R-Horry, and Jim Harrison, R-Richland.
The six aren’t alone.
Since Operation Lost Trust, almost three decades ago, seven other lawmakers have faced criminal charges. Those charges resulted in the conviction or guilty pleas from more than a half-dozen sitting legislators.
Government watchdog John Crangle has kept a list of the fallen lawmakers since the early ’90s Lost Trust federal investigation – on which he wrote the book. That list, he says, shows two positive trends: State and local law enforcement officers have done a better job holding powerful lawmakers to account; and almost all legislators brought to court end up facing some repercussions for their actions.
“Up until the end of Lost Trust, almost all prosecutions were done by the feds, not the state,” Crangle said. “The problem was that state law enforcement was too afraid of retaliation, so the state wouldn’t do anything.
“To his credit, (S.C. Attorney General) Alan Wilson is the first one who’s gotten really serious about corruption.”
Wilson’s office initiated the investigation into former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s use of campaign funds, including his spending for trips on his private plane. Harrell pleaded guilty to misusing campaign money in 2014 and resigned his seat.
Since then, the Harrell investigation has grown into a wider corruption investigation that has ensnared other lawmakers.
Former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, pleaded guilty in September to misconduct in office, after being accused of unlawfully pocketing $1 million from outside groups while serving in the Legislature.
And four other current or former legislators now face charges.
Since Lost Trust, others lawmakers have found themselves in trouble for other offenses:
▪ State Sen. Horace Smith, D-Spartanburg, pleaded guilty to defrauding investors in a Spartanburg retirement home of some $10 million through a fraudulent bond sale. He received a three-year suspended sentence in 1992.
▪ State Sen. Theo Mitchell, D-Greenville, was expelled from the Senate in 1995 after he pleaded guilty to failing to report large cash transactions that he handled on behalf of a client later convicted on drug charges. He served a 90-day sentence.
▪ State Rep. Thad Viers, R-Horry, saw his plans to run for Congress in 2012 derailed when he was accused of harassing and stalking an ex-girlfriend. He pleaded guilty to second-degree harassment in 2014 and received 60 days in jail. Two years later, Viers pleaded guilty to federal money laundering charges and received a three-year sentence.
▪ State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, received a seven-year suspended sentence in 2015 for misconduct and ethics violations. Ford misused campaign money to make personal purchases, then filed false statements and forged checks to cover up the purchases.
▪ State Rep. Chris Corley, R-Aiken, pleaded guilty to felony domestic violence in August after he assaulted his wife and pointed a gun at her during an argument the day after Christmas. Corley received a six-month sentence suspended to five years on probation.
The one lawmaker who avoided conviction in the past 25 years was state Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, who was charged with drunken driving in 2013 after being arrested in the State House parking garage. The charge later was dropped on a technicality.
What do 2017 elections mean for SC?
Exactly one year before the 2018 midterm elections, Tuesday’s off-year elections have given some much-needed hope to Democrats.
In the purple state of Virginia, Democrats managed to hold on to the Governor’s Mansion and may have flipped control of that Legislature’s lower house, pending some recounts.
S.C. Democrats see hopes of an anti-Trump backlash in Virginia Republican Ed Gillespie’s loss in that state’s race for governor.
S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson thinks those results bode ill for GOP candidate Catherine Templeton in particular, who embraced former White House strategist Steve Bannon in Charleston Friday.
“Gillespie ran a campaign of hatred, tied himself to Steve Bannon, and he went from being a mainstream, establishment Republican to a fringe candidate,” Robertson said.
Robertson also thinks GOP Gov. Henry McMaster fits the same mold as Gillespie, which means he should have been “running in the opposite direction” during Bannon’s S.C. visit. (Instead, McMaster too went to Charleston, too, to meet with Bannon.)
However, S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick thinks Gillespie had the opposite problem — the Virginian passed on bringing Trump operatives onto his campaign, avoided campaigning with the president and, as a result, underperformed Trump’s 2016 Virginia numbers.
McKissick blames Tuesday’s Republican losses on the lack of legislative accomplishments in Washington, where the GOP controls both houses of Congress and the presidency. The failure to get anything done discourages committed Republicans, including those in South Carolina, the GOP chairman said.
“We should have come out the gate on repealing Obamacare, on the tax bill,” McKissick said. “We’ve got the numbers. It’s not rocket science. We just have some Republicans who have decided not to be team players.”
Democratic candidate for governor Phil Noble said the demographics of Tuesday’s voters give Democrats hope in 2018.
“As long as we present a real alternative, you can get a huge influx of new people,” Noble said, decrying “State House politicians who run as Republican-light.”
But state Rep. James Smith, the Richland Democrat who is the leader for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, thinks any Democratic victory in South Carolina will come as a result of focusing on South Carolina-specific concerns, not what worked or happened elsewhere.
“You’ve got to make the case to Democrats, Republicans and independents, so you’ve always got to be careful with that type of analysis,” Smith said.
While South Carolina didn’t have any statewide offices on the ballot Tuesday, Robertson pointed to successful Democratic candidates in several city elections, including in Columbia’s City Council races, the first black mayor of Georgetown and a new mayor in Chapin.
“The lessons that should be learned from this are not on the Democratic side,” Robertson said. “They’re on the Republican side.”