Ethics watchdog on corruption in South Carolina in the 90s and today
For nearly 30 years, John Crangle’s position as executive director of S.C. Common Cause has given him a catbird seat – a great viewing post and the time – with which to view events in the General Assembly.
“I like to look at things not many people get interested in or can find out about, such as ethics in government,” said Crangle, 76, whose nonprofit bills itself as working for “honest, open, accountable government.”
Crangle grew up in South Dakota, graduated from its state university, and came to South Carolina in the 1960s, earning a doctorate in history and political science from the University of South Carolina in 1969. In 1985, he graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law and the next year landed a job with Common Cause to monitor the Legislature and work for better government at all levels of the state.
His job put him in the perfect spot to observe the Legislature as the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Bart Daniel, now a lawyer in private practice, in 1990 sent an undercover operative among the 170 lawmakers to see how many would take bribes. FBI agents filmed most encounters.
The federal probe, known as Operation Lost Trust, began in 1989 as a drug investigation but evolved into an extensive look at vote buying and political corruption in the state Legislature. It eventually would lead to criminal charges against 28 defendants, among them 18 lawmakers, assorted lobbyists, executive branch officials, a university administrator and a businessman. Only one was found not guilty by a jury. The other 27 either pleaded guilty or were found guilty. The trials and investigations went on until 1999, when the last three defendants were convicted.
Crangle has written a new book, which coincides with his retirement later this year as executive director of Common Cause. Highlights include a 16-page interview with former U.S. Attorney Daniel and a chapter on questionable aspects of the investigation.
How long did it take you to write “Operation Lost Trust and the Ethics Reform Movement”?
Crangle: I started researching this about three-and-a-half years ago. I spent about 15-20 hours a week on it, but other weeks 30-40 hours.
What resources did you use?
Crangle: I used the archive of The State newspaper, which is on mircofilm at the State Library, for the skeleton of the book. The State covered the story more extensively than any other paper. I also relied on my own memory. For example, then-Sen. Rick Lee denounced me in April of 1990 after I testified at a hearing that the General Assembly was rife with corruption, then later he was indicted for taking bribes. Six weeks after attacking me, the FBI secretly videoed Lee taking a $2,000 bribe. A few months later, Lee was among the first five lawmakers indicted. He later pleaded guilty.
Was that satisfying, to see a crooked senator who had attacked you get indicted and convicted?
How did you hear there might be corruption in the Legislature?
Crangle: I went to work in the Legislature for Common Cause in 1986. Almost immediately, I heard rumors about the lobbyists, about how lawmakers were coming out of their chambers, demanding lobbyists’ credit cards to put expenses on. Then, in May 1990, I actually saw a lobbyist send messages into the House chamber to see various lawmakers, and when they came out, he handed them envelopes with checks in them. The money was for the way the lawmakers voted on certain issues.
You’ve been an observer of the Legislature more than 30 years for Common Cause. Have your views on politicians changed?
Crangle: I’m certainly more skeptical than I used to be. Politicians are a certain type of human being. They are more ambitious, more eager to be successful, more narcissistic than the average person and therefore more vulnerable to being bribed.
Why do you, John Crangle, care about ethics?
Crangle: I went to Catholic school. At its best, Catholicism teaches people to be ethical, to have social responsibility. and also the importance of an honest government. Not that I’m a rigid Catholic, but that influenced me a lot. You can’t go to a school like that and not be influenced by the nuns and the monks.
Did you have anything that surprised you in researching the book?
Crangle: Yes – the number of people that refused an interview. Either they wouldn’t talk to me, or they wouldn’t talk on the record. Lobbyists in particular were afraid to say anything.
This is obviously a labor of love. Your book is self-published. Tell us about the finances.
Crangle: The printing bill was about $25,000. We printed 1,500 copies. I hired two assistants and an editor. That cost about $6,000. I’m not going to make any money on it. It’s designed to be a fact-based, reference book – an encylopedia of Lost Trust.
So, why did you write the book if it would not make money?
Crangle: I thought it needed to be done, and quite frankly, I thought I could do it better than anyone else. I lived through it, I’m a professional historian and I’m a lawyer.
Is there as much corruption now in the Legislature as there was in 1990?
Crangle: No, the Legislature is much cleaner. You get a crooked legislator once in a while. But we don’t have the widespread corruption there was in Lost Trust. They were living off the lobbyists, getting money and golf clubs and free trips and cocaine and prostitutes.
About the book
John Crangle’s encyclopedic book – “Operation Lost Trust and the Ethics Reform Movement” – fills more than 600 pages in chronicling one of South Carolina’s most notorious government scandals. Publication of the book coincides with Crangle’s retirement later this year from Common Cause.
Excerpt: Was State House culture sick?
The final issue in evaluating Lost Trust must be whether the political culture of South Carolina was pathological and had been perhaps for 300 years.
Ever since its foundation as a colony in 1670, a small predatory elite had fastened itself on the economic, cultural and political life of the Carolina colony and afterward the state, exploiting it in ruthless, corrupt and irresponsible ways and using government to enrich themselves.
Lost Trust shows that many politicians had been living off politics for their entire career and many had been using their public offices to sell influence and official action for profit.
Many lawyer-legislators had been taking retainers from big corporations for which they did no legal work, but instead served as in-house de facto corporate lobbyists at the State House. Many businessmen in the legislature were involved in conflicts of interest, were doing business with state and local government, and practicing corruption and abuse of office as a way of life.”
John Crangle, “Operation Lost Trust and the Ethics Reform Movement”
Where to find the book
“Operation Lost Trust and the Ethics Reform Movement” is $39.95. It is available at Books on Broad in Camden and the Uptown gift shop in Columbia. Crangle is talking with independent bookstores around the state.