The following article was published on May 2, 1997
Buckle your seat belts and hang on: Ron Cobb is revved up and ready to take state senators on a wild ride as they probe the depths of a pre-Operation Lost Trust tax break he paid legislators to pass.
After nearly seven years of uncharacteristic restraint, answering only the questions he was asked in court, the central figure in the federal government’s bribery sting said Thursday he’s tired of taking the blame for others’ mistakes, and itching to go on the offensive. Wednesday’s vote by senators to launch an unprecedented inquiry gives him the perfect forum.
“I welcome the opportunity to testify; I look forward to it,” Cobb said. “I have nothing to hide, and I hope none of the senators do, either.”
Cobb, chomping on the end of a trademark cigar as he held court in a hotel restaurant in Clinton, coyly sidestepped questions about whether he plans to implicate any current senators. But he ominously referred to senators as people in glass houses. Shaking his head, the Greenville business consultant declared that he finds the whole idea of a Senate inquiry into the 1988 retroactive capital-gains tax break “hard to understand.”
In his first interview since a federal judge blew Lost Trust out of the water in February, the man who starred in the government’s undercover corruption probe also:
▪ Blasted U.S. District Judge Falcon Hawkins’ suggestions that he was a drug dealer who committed perjury and took over Lost Trust to target his enemies.
▪ Insisted neither former Gov. Carroll Campbell nor Campbell’s best friend, Dick Greer, knew anything about the bribes. He said Greer “got a bum rap” from Hawkins’ suggestions to the contrary.
▪ Agreed with Hawkins’ overall finding that prosecutors stopped at nothing to win convictions against lawmakers - a charge prosecutors vigorously deny.
“He’s probably right in that a lot of things were probably done by the prosecutors that shouldn’t have been done,” Cobb said. “I think they felt they could do anything they wanted to do to get these convictions.”
The flamboyant former lobbyist wouldn’t point to specifics, saying that would have to wait until he’s questioned under oath. It’s one of several questions he declined to answer, after tossing out enticing suggestions that there was plenty left to tell.
Some people have indicated they’ll go to court to fight any Senate-issued subpoenas. But Sen. Tom Moore, the Aiken Democrat spearheading the investigation, said Thursday he expects several would volunteer to tell a special panel what they know about the $22 million retroactive tax cut, which would have given $8.6 million to the top 21 benefactors.
Moore said it was premature to speculate about whether Cobb would be called to testify, and said he didn’t have any concerns that Cobb would tarnish senators. But it’s difficult to imagine a credible investigation in which Cobb wouldn’t be as central a figure as he was in the federal government’s undercover corruption probe.
What Campbell, Greer and others knew or didn’t know about Cobb’s bribery-based lobbying program is at the heart of the Senate investigation. But while Cobb is ready to answer senators’ questions, he made it clear he will not be a pawn in anyone’s political game: Anyone who wants answers will have to listen to all of them, not just the ones they want to hear.
“Through all these years, people have taken shots at me,” he said. “People have used me to forward their own agendas, and that’s all well and good, but those days are over now. If people want to take shots at me, I’m here to fight back.”
His hardest punches are aimed at Hawkins’ suggestion that he lied under oath when he said he never bribed the late Sen. Jack Lindsay. Hawkins pointed to FBI agents’ transcript of an interview with Cobb, which quoted Cobb as acknowledging he had paid off Lindsay on the tax-cut legislation and an earlier bill.
But Cobb said he disputed those notes the moment he saw them, telling FBI agents in “a heated exchange” that it was their interpretation, not his.
He continues to insist that any money he gave Lindsay, whom he looked up to as a father figure, was for legal or consulting fees. While he can understand why others might consider the payments to be bribes, “if they knew our history of how we had operated together, they would understand why I didn’t consider it a bribe. And you may. But I still don’t.”
Cobb also cringed at Hawkins’ characterization of his involvement in the sting.
Hawkins’ order said Cobb talked the feds into letting him run a corruption sting to save himself from prosecution as a drug trafficker. Cobb said it was the other way around: The FBI lured him into a phony drug deal because agents wanted to force him to go undercover to sting vote-selling legislators. Testimony from the sting trials seemed to back up Cobb’s version of events.
Hawkins also charged that Cobb took over the investigation, targeting political foes and sparing friends. But Cobb said Lindsay was the only person he ever insisted was off limits.
He said he had no say over whom he bribed to cement their support for a pari-mutuel betting bill at the center of the sting: The FBI told him to approach then-Reps. Bob Kohn and Luther Taylor, offer them bribes and ask them to bring in other lawmakers. Whoever showed up got cash, he said.
The judge tied many of his contentions to notes from a book manuscript Cobb was working on. But Cobb said those notes “reflect some fact and a lot of fiction” because he was trying to spice up the story to sell a publisher on “a novel with fiction, based on fact.”
Cindi Ross Scoppe covers the Legislature and has written about Operation Lost Trust since 1990. Call her at 771-8571.