In 1989, FBI agents moved into the world of bars and clubs around the Statehouse in Columbia and set up a massive sting called Operation Lost Trust. Over the next two years, they offered bribes to legislators to support a sucker bill to legalize horse- and dog-track betting. Too many South Carolina lawmakers were happy to sell their votes.
When the feds sprang the Lost Trust trap in 1991, they snared 17 General Assembly members, seven lobbyists, and three others on bribery, extortion, and drug charges. All were convicted or pleaded guilty.
The epic sting and convictions made for riveting reading and reverberated around the nation. It even shocked this jaded old state, which has seen just about everything. In the end, archaic ethics laws were rewritten, and legislators swore they had found religion. It was going to be a new day in Columbia. From now on, there would be clean government, sunshine, transparency, and accountability.
That was a generation ago, and apparently all those pledges and lofty intentions have been forgotten, as demonstrated by recent reports from the Capital City. First, there is Gov. Nikki Haley, who faces a House Ethics Committee investigation. While she was in the House of Representatives, she was on the payroll of a Lexington County hospital at the same time she was pushing legislation the hospital desperately wanted.
In an apparent effort to distract the Ethics Committee and the public, Haley's attorney has promised to make public a list of other legislators who have received money from organizations that lobby at the Statehouse. Whose names are on that list and who are they working for? What legislation have they written or advanced to benefit their paymasters? That's a revelation we can look forward to in the weeks ahead — that is if Haley's attorneys ever produce the much-talked-about list.
In the meantime, Haley and her attorney have cited attorney-client privilege in declining to surrender e-mails sought by the Ethics Committee in their investigation. Haley is beginning to sound like Richard Nixon.
Last week, in a stunning revelation, The Post and Courier reported that in recent years Rep. Jim Merrill, the powerful Daniel Island Republican, has been on the payroll of the S.C. Association of Realtors. While receiving some $158,000 in consulting fees from the Realtors, he was the "primary sponsor and leading voice on legislation" to cut property taxes, making it easier for Realtors to sell houses.
Not only did his one-man consulting firm handle direct mail for the Realtors, but "Merrill's work included advising the Realtors as to which legislators would fall in line with their priorities so the group could back those lawmakers' campaigns," the P&C reported. The Charleston daily also notes that the group paid Merrill to design an ad that appeared in newspapers around the state, urging further tax cuts by the S.C. House.
Was there anything wrong in what Merrill, Haley, and perhaps others in the General Assembly are doing when they take money from special interests who lobby the Assembly? Sadly, the answer is no, according to the staff of the House Ethics Committee. "There's nothing unethical about it whatsoever," Merrill declared, citing the staff of the Ethics Committee as his legal authority.
And Merrill had something else to say, something that was even more troubling: "The General Assembly doesn't mean that much to me. I'm to the point that I have been there long enough to be jaded now, so my I-don't-give-a-damn meter is way off the charts."
A couple of observations about this sterling public servant and his colleagues in Columbia. First, Merrill will be re-elected in November because he has no opposition, nor has he had any since 2002. "I guess they think I'm doing a pretty good job," he said of his constituents. I guess they do.
My second point is that a number of people outside the Statehouse think that what is going on there stinks. Armand Derfner, a prominent public interest lawyer, told the P&C that Merrill's behavior in other states would be deemed "unethical and criminal, but here in South Carolina, it's the norm."
Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said of Columbia, "That's the political culture and that is a very hard thing to change." Indeed, he suggested it might be time for another federal intervention in Columbia to clean house and drain the cesspool. He didn't say it, but I will: We need another Operation Lost Trust.
All of these revelations come less than four months after Lt. Gov. Ken Ard pleaded guilty to campaign law violations and resigned his seat. And thanks in part to these unfortunate events, South Carolina feels evermore like a Third World country — Afghanistan, perhaps, or Haiti — where Uncle Sam tries to impose democracy and modern values only to have its efforts thwarted every time by tribal leaders and special interests. You can't save those who don't wish to be saved.