THE CASE of the governor’s SLED agent/driver and the Highway Patrol trooper is worth lingering over, not because of what it tells us about Mark Sanford but because of what it tells us about law enforcement in our state.
It seems safe to say, at the least, that top police officials handled this situation much better than the previous roadside encounters with a politician that made headlines.
First, a bit of perspective, since that seems so hard to come by in matters concerning Mr. Sanford.
A number of Sanford supporters have complained that there was nothing newsworthy about the fact that a trooper stopped the governor’s car for doing 20 mph over the speed limit but walked away without giving the driver so much as a warning; they say it wouldn’t even have been reported had the sharks not already been circling the governor. They’re simply wrong. Public Safety Director Mark Keel and SLED Chief Reggie Lloyd, through their responses, prevented this from becoming a huge deal, which is why it was largely a twoday news story. But any time something out of the ordinary occurs in a car in which the governor is riding, it’s news, whether that something was good or bad, whether the governor’s approval rating is 5 percent or 100 percent.
On the other end of the spectrum, some Sanford critics have likened this incident to Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer’s personal ticket avoidance. That’s an absurd comparison. The lieutenant governor was actually driving the speeding vehicle, not riding in it; he was driving at triple-digit speeds, not 20 miles over the speed limit; he acted deceptively to make the trooper believe he was a high-ranking police officer; he never was ticketed. Oh, and the Highway Patrol leadership handled that matter horribly, sending the message to troopers and the public that the normal rules don’t apply to VIPs.
Now, let’s consider the events that occurred inside and outside the governor’s sedan:
SLED agent James B. Rawl should not have been driving 20 miles over the speed limit. His actions once he was stopped — he told the trooper to take his complaint to the governor — were unprofessional and unacceptable. If Mr. Sanford had, on this or another occasion, suggested that the SLED agent should speed, or use his name to get out of a ticket, then Mr. Rawl’s actions were understandable — but still wrong.
Lance Cpl. R.S. Salter’s actions were inappropriate. The problem is not so much that he failed to ticket Mr. Rawl; troopers have — and should have — nearly total discretion about whether to issue a ticket when they stop someone, just as they have broad discretion over whom to stop. Oftentimes they decide that a written or oral warning is sufficient. But the videotape of the stop shows no evidence that even an oral warning was given. And the trooper violated the state law that requires a written report of all stops that do not result in a ticket.
Moreover, nothing on the video suggested that the trooper was in any way coerced into pretending the incident never happened. Although he told the SLED agent that driving Mr. Sanford was not sufficient reason to speed, he essentially told the governor that he merely wanted to verify that the agent was telling the truth about who his passenger was.
Although this could change if Mr. Rawl says the governor made him do it, there is nothing on the tape or in subsequent actions to indicate that there was any sin of commission on Mr. Sanford’s part. He didn’t ask for special treatment or in any way imply that the SLED agent should get it. (Of course, he didn’t need to; it was given without any request.)
But certainly there was a sin of omission. It would have been nice for him to take the proactive step of telling the trooper to treat this stop like any other instead of nonchalantly accepting the free pass for his driver. He did not.
If there’s anything positive to come of all this, it’s that Mr. Keel and Mr. Lloyd didn’t stonewall or try to cover this up or defend the actions of their employees. In fact, it was their actions that brought the incident to light. (Both men were appointed by Mr. Sanford, but the governor cannot fire them.)
Mr. Keel learned of the incident from the SLED agent in charge of the governor’s security detail (which speaks well of that agent) and was reviewing the incident when the first media inquiries came in. He told the trooper to go back and issue a ticket, and he and Col. Kenny Lancaster Jr. both gave Cpl. Salter oral counseling, the first level of discipline for troopers. (“When you get the colonel and the director of the agency that talks to you, I hope that hits home,” Mr. Keel told me. “It’s not every day a trooper has the colonel and I both counseling him.”)
Mr. Lloyd came out even more strongly, calling his agent’s actions “totally inappropriate,” and launched an investigation that could result in disciplinary action.
The culture in our state has always been that the rules don’t apply to certain people, among them politicians and law enforcement officers. The politicians as protected persons rule flows largely out of fear — mostly irrational fear, since state employees have near union like job protection, but fear nonetheless. And there’s an unwritten rule, flowing from camaraderie, that cops don’t ticket other cops — a rule Mr. Keel says he is working to change.
This incident brought both of those problems into focus. And while a respectable argument could be made that perhaps more should have been done, given the way such matters typically have been handled in our state, I find the actions by Mr. Keel and Mr. Lloyd encouraging.