On July 18, 1990, federal agents arrived at the offices of 17 state legislators with subpoenas and questions about the wads of crisp $100 bills they had accepted from a shady lobbyist hawking horse gambling.
Over the next 17 months, prosecutors would roll out grainy black-and-white videos of legislators selling their votes; a tenth of the Legislature would be convicted on corruption and drug charges, along with 10 lobbyists and government officials; the Legislature would pass one of the toughest ethics laws in the nation; Gov. Carroll Campbell would use the scandal to launch a campaign to restructure the government.
Read other articles in The State @125 series.
The massive corruption sting dubbed Operation Lost Trust put much-needed distance between legislators and lobbyists: Legislators, accustomed to having their meals paid for and even taking lavish vacations at the expense of people paid to sway their votes, no longer could accept anything from lobbyists: no dinner, no campaign donations, not even a cup of coffee.
The campaign finance law has atrophied through a quarter century of loopholes and legislative neglect. Today candidates can’t pocket campaign donations — unless they’re clever, or don’t get caught. Donations are limited — $3,500 per election for statewide candidates and $1,000 for everyone else — unless donors pretend to make “independent” expenditures.
A look back at Lost Trust 20 years later
The result is that voters can’t even find out who is bankrolling candidates unless candidates and donors want them to. The role of money in our politics is greater than ever. And the Legislature fails year after year to overhaul the law.
Cindi Ross Scoppe