Cindi Ross Scoppe

What Operation Lost Trust meant to South Carolina

Then-Rep. Robert Brown thumbs through a cash payment from undercover lobbyist Ron Cobb on this 1990 FBI surveillance video.
Then-Rep. Robert Brown thumbs through a cash payment from undercover lobbyist Ron Cobb on this 1990 FBI surveillance video.

OPERATION LOST Trust was a line of demarcation in South Carolina government, a point from which we date events “before” and “after.” Not on the same scale as the Civil War and Reconstruction, but certainly as big as, oh, the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds last year. It was perhaps as significant as the transformation of our state from yellow-dog Democrat to take-for-granted Republican.

John Crangle’s ‘Operation Lost Trust’ book explores dark chapter in SC Legislature

The federal corruption investigation brought down a tenth of the Legislature, along with 10 lobbyists and government officials — all caught up in an undercover sting directed by a lobbyist who counted out crisp $100 bills in return for legislators’ pledges to vote for a horse-gambling bill, while the FBI recorded grainy black-and-white video.

Before Lost Trust, lobbyists were legislators’ best friends. They took lawmakers out to lunch and dinner and drinking in the evening, showered them with gifts, financed their election campaigns, even took (or sent) them on lavish vacations. In return, they got what they wanted for their clients — pretty much always when they wanted to stop legislation, often even when they wanted to pass legislation.

After Lost Trust — and after the Ethics Reform Act of 1991 that was the Legislature’s immediate response — lobbyists were branded with the scarlet L. They could no longer give legislators anything. Not a vacation. Not a campaign donation. Not dinner. Not a ride to dinner. Not even a cup of coffee. Nothing.

Businesses and organizations that employed lobbyists could only entertain legislators in formal groups, and that entertainment had to be reported to the public. They could still make campaign donations to legislators, but the lobbyists weren’t allowed to be involved in the decisions, or the delivery of the checks; and the previously unlimited donations were capped at $1,000 per election.

Those were remarkably important reforms, because they ended the inadvertent seduction of corruption that occurred when the perfectly legal free lunch turned into the free dinner and the free evening’s entertainment and then the free resort vacation — and the now-easy agreement to vote however the patron asked.

But they were not be-all-end-all reforms. The Legislature didn’t seriously consider allowing an independent entity to police legislators’ compliance with the law. A quarter century later, the General Assembly came tantalizingly close this year to passing a law that allows independent investigations of legislators. And it’s still possible that law could pass when lawmakers return to Columbia for a wrap-up session in two weeks. Maybe.

Likewise, lawmakers didn’t agree to give up any significant information about how they make a living — even though many of the legislators caught up in Lost Trust had murky means of making a living, and it was clear we could have benefited from knowing where their money was coming from. That, too, might finally change this year, although it seems even less likely.

The “rules of conduct” side of the law has withstood the test of time, and achieved the desired result of putting some distance between legislators and lobbyists. The campaign finance law has atrophied through more than two decades of legislative neglect and federal court rulings that were increasingly hostile to the public’s right to know who is trying to buy our government.

The result is that today the money anyone can give to a candidate is limited only if the donor wants it to be limited. The voters can find out who is bankrolling candidates only if the candidates and the donors want them to. The role of money in our politics is greater than ever. And the ethics bills that there is still some outside chance the Legislature might pass this year will do nothing to change any of that.

Lost Trust also created a line of demarcation for the balance of powers in our government. Before Lost Trust, the governor was a mostly powerless figurehead; all power resided in the Legislature. After Lost Trust, the governor was given direct control of 11 state agencies and indirect control of dozens more.

Over time, governors have gained power over more agencies, although the Education Department is still run by a separately elected state official and the colleges and universities are still run by legislative appointees. And the other big-money agency, the Transportation Department — well, legislators claim they voted this week to give the governor control of the agency. But they didn’t; not really.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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