Forecast is cloudy with a chance of indictment 

Operation Skullduggery

I love the drama of summer storms — watching brooding, tumultuous skies mope over the horizon. I'm mesmerized as billowy, dreamy clouds morph into a menacing architecture of dark gray thunderheads and meteorological doom. The theatricality of lightning flashes, the guttural moans of thunder and drenching release of rain — it always thrills me. The frequency of afternoon storms here in Charleston almost makes up for our lack of fireflies. Almost.

Funny thing, it was also in the sweltering, sticky mid-summer back in late July and August 1990 when things got even stickier for South Carolina legislators. When threatening thunderheads grew impossibly heavy, until it all just came pouring down.

Back then the Feds were sniffing out loaded lobbyists and greedy legislators who were buying and selling votes and funding campaigns like they were dealing juicy peaches at the State Farmers Market (hold that thought). Heck, it was just run of the mill, good ol' boy back scratching and palm greasing, until they got caught. Back then, South Carolina law placed no limits on the size of campaign contributions or where they came from. It was American shopping at its finest, the Costco of politics.

That was Operation Lost Trust, which resulted in a minor Statehouse cleaning thanks to the eventual indictment of 28 state lawmakers (rendering 27 convictions), and in 1991, the passing of the State Ethics, Government Accountability and Campaign Reform Act. Only that legislation seems a bit limp these days.

Fast forward to the ubiquitous clouds of collusion and nepotism today in the nation's executive branch, and to the Feds once again poking around Columbia, this time pulling back the curtain on Richard Quinn & Associates' king-making "Quinndom." "Lost trust" sounds almost quaint. I'm no Rob Fowler or Bill Walsh, but sure looks to me like a storm's a brewing and moving this way. Shit's gonna come down, folks; take cover — but you might think twice about heading for the port.

In Lost Trust the losses unraveled with lobbyists; today it's "consultants." Specifically the coterie entwined with Richard Quinn, a smarmy Saruman figure whose nexus is the state capital and whose wizardry is of the "who do you know" variety. In addition to RQ&A, Quinn's associated outfit is, ironically, called First Impressions. Note: this is a professional communications company raking in millions of our tax dollars from state agencies, and the best they can do on their own website is this thin drabble: "Many times, the difference between winning and losing a close campaign comes down to relationships."

Oh, so that's how it works. (Hint: it helps when said "relationships" render fat checks.)

According to recent reports by the Post and Courier and The State, state agents have seized Mr. Quinn's financial records, and this seems to be making a lot of folks, including the C-suite at the Charleston-based State Ports Authority, a wee bit anxious. Quinn said his firm received a flat monthly retainer of $8,100 from the SPA for "general consulting services," with no contract or specified scope of work or deliverables promised. Whoa. When then-SPA employee and current gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton responded to a Post and Courier FOIA request and handed over Quinn invoices, she was canned. Seems SPA board chairman, Bill Stern, who chaired the committee that hired the state's highest paid official, SPA CEO Jim Newsome, was none too pleased. Newsome denies Templeton's allegations that her brief (but well compensated) SPA tenure ended as a result of meddling in Quinn-related affairs.

The port — or as I'm beginning to think of it, South Carolina's Mar-a-lago, an exclusive waterfront club where high dollar officials are making high dollar deals — is far from the only implicated body. The tangled web of Quinn's "relationships," including those to Quinn Jr., himself a state representative, is far too tangled to tease-out here, but darlings like Friends of the Hunley, the State Farmers Market, and SCANA, not to mention about every elected S.C. official you've ever heard of, have been filling the Quinns' coffers. From cucumbers to Confederates — gotta love it.

The travesty here isn't lost trust. It's lost faith and hope that trust can ever be a relevant concept when it comes to politics, locally or nationally. Cynicism seems our prime civic duty these days; we shrug our shoulders, post a rant or two on Twitter, and look the other way. Except we're running out of other places to look and worthy people to look to. If kissing up to the Quinns is the only way to get elected in South Carolina, then what person with more conscience than ego dares or cares to run? If whistleblowing on outrageously shady dealings is merely a campaign tactic, then that doesn't smell so rosy either.

The wind is picking up, and it's increasingly dark and cloudy out there. I for one am ready for a good cleansing downpour, some gut-wrenching, get-right-with-God thunder.



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