After 30 years of holding South Carolina's lawmakers accountable, longtime government watchdog John Crangle will soon step down from his position as executive director of S.C. Common Cause. Early on in his career as a lobbyist pushing ethics reform, Crangle says he knew he'd make enemies. But he never shied away from confronting those who stood in between him and doing what he believed was right.
Crangle credits that resolve to the years he's spent playing hockey. In the trunk of his car sit a pair of well-worn ice skates, scuffed to hell and back after years of heavy use. Packed next to his equipment is a box containing what can be considered the culmination of his decades of work. At just over 600 pages, Crangle's new book, Operation Lost Trust: The Ethics Reform Movement, is a comprehensive account of one of the biggest political corruption probes in United States history. After a lengthy undercover investigation that stretched over a year, 28 defendants in total faced charges — numbering among them were legislators including one-half of the House Ethics Committee, lobbyists, and other high-ranking officials. Now, as members of the General Assembly find themselves under scrutiny during yet another corruption probe, Crangle looks back on Operation Lost Trust as the necessary first step in reshaping South Carolina politics.
"I found that the benefit of it in retrospect was very substantial. I didn't know how successful the ethics reforms would be at the time that I was promoting them and the time that they were passed," says Crangle. "Looking back, they've been in effect almost 25 years, I think the ethics reforms that came out of Operation Lost Trust were really beneficial to the people of South Carolina and have done a lot to improve the integrity of our government. Without Operation Lost Trust, any ethics reform bill would not have passed. It takes a scandal, it takes a crisis, to force politicians to address problems like corruption."
When Crangle first dipped his toes into Statehouse waters in 1987, he was shocked by what he found. With seemingly no restrictions on what gifts lobbyists could offer legislators at the time, Crangle describes the scene as a cesspool of corruption. In 1990, he testified before a Senate subcommittee, describing the bribes, kickbacks, and shakedowns that were so prevalent in the Statehouse. Crangle was labeled a liar by a senator and accused of defaming South Carolina's governing body. He didn't apologize. And six weeks later, that same senator accepted a bribe from an undercover FBI informant.
Leading the charge on the prosecution for Operation Lost Trust was E. Bart Daniel, the former U.S. attorney who joined Crangle last week for a forum on the investigation held before students at the Charleston School of Law.
"The investigation was covert and quiet for 14 months before it became public, and during that time there was a tremendous amount of undercover activity and behind-the-scenes work both by the FBI and by the U.S. Attorney's Office," Daniel says of the sting operation that utilized informants, wire-taps, and hidden cameras to gather a mountain of evidence.
The investigation began when a lobbyist by the name of Ron Cobb was busted with cocaine. Daniel was contacted by an FBI agent who offered him two options: They could carry out a quick sting, have Cobb try to sell drugs to a few legislators, leading to a few arrests and making headlines for the week. Or they could do something bigger. They could go for a major undercover operation to pull all the seedy dealings of state legislators into daylight with no guarantee that it would pay off. Daniel decided it was time to go big and possibly make a lasting difference.
What followed was a long series of undercover stings with Cobb offering lawmakers big payouts for their votes and punctuating transactions with the line, "It's a business doing pleasure with you."
As the weeks stretched by, the day came for lawmakers to disclose their campaign contributions. Daniel and his team waited to see which officials under investigation would offer any mention of their meetings with Cobb. When that proved not to be the case, investigators spread throughout the state two by two to question each suspect individually. Again, they denied any involvement with Cobb or any other form of shady dealings. After more than a year of keeping things hush, investigators finally had all they needed to go to court. Daniel had bet big, and in the end it all paid off.
"If something would have happened and it would have gotten out before they filed the campaign disclosure forms ... well, we were scared to death. If the cat had gotten out of the bag, they could all claim everything as campaign contributions, and there was nothing we could do," says Daniel. "Then we went and had FBI agents from around the country, 72 came in and went off in twos to interview legislators in their hometowns, and they all lied."
Of the 28 indictments following Operation Lost Trust, one man — former state Rep. Timmy Wilkes — was found not guilty by a jury. Joining Crangle, Daniel, and School of Law President Ed Bell during last week's forum was Wilkes' attorney during that trial, Gedney Howe. Providing a different perspective on the numerous legal battles that followed the government probe, Howe offered up insight on how to defend a client who's seemingly already lost in the court of public opinion.
"The government does a lot of things wrong, but they prosecute cases very well. The first thing they did, the first move in this, was to give it a name ... They came up with the term 'Lost Trust,' and they knew when they named it that every time it was going to be discussed in the newspaper, they were going to be talking about lost trust," Howe explained. "That's the beginning of momentum in this case. They gave it a name that would be consistent with an opening statement."
As an increasing number of politicians faced convictions, Howe defended Wilkes, who the attorney describes as a playboy who wore blue contact lenses and Armani suits, and had his own tanning bed. Interviewing those who knew Wilkes before he became a state legislator, Howe was met with story after story of a different man than the one he knew, a humble, reliable hard-worker. Howe knew that if there was any hope of saving his client, this was the version of Wilkes the jury would need to see. Howe decided to take a few chances. He dressed his client in an old brown suit. Gone were Wilkes' blue contacts, in their place were a pair of glasses with tape placed deliberately on the side facing away from the jury so that, as Howe says, they could discover it for themselves. In the end, Wilkes was found not guilty.
At the end of last week's forum, Crangle left students with a bit of advice. He told them they have to be willing to do something courageous and abnormal if they want to achieve any real change. And as the stories shared by Crangle, Daniel, and Howe prove, taking a risk and trying something different can have lasting repercussions on the world.