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Uncovered

News deserts and weak ethics laws allow corruption to run rampant in SC

  • 22 min to read
News deserts and weak ethics laws allow corruption to run rampant in SC

1. LIGHT

Corruption festers when people aren’t looking, when the spotlight doesn’t shine. Without fair scrutiny, public officials with weak ethical backbones bend the rules. They help themselves to public money. They help their cronies instead of people they represent. Like a virus, corruption mushrooms, and so do the costs to you and other members of the public.

Sunlight can disinfect, but South Carolina has lost some light.

Despite promises to clean up corruption, South Carolina lawmakers crafted toothless ethics laws. Despite a parade of scandals, lawmakers failed to give the State Law Enforcement Division enough resources to go after government cheaters. And these failures intersect with two other trends:

The U.S. Department of Justice and FBI have a long history of swooping in to stop shady sheriffs and crooked legislators, but federal corruption investigations have plummeted across the nation. At the same time, community news organizations have folded or are just hanging on, creating "news deserts" where public officials operate without reporters keeping tabs.

This darkening void of scrutiny has profound consequences. Unchallenged, lies can lead to boondoggles, such as the $9 billion collapse of South Carolina's nuclear project. Corruption chips away at trust, as we’ve seen with South Carolina’s sheriffs — 14 charged since 2010. 

In fact, over the past six years, at least 100 public officials were arrested on criminal charges related to their government work.

Cases like the Department of Motor Vehicles worker in Spartanburg, charged with taking a bribe to let a man skip the line.

And the town administrator in Allendale who siphoned more than $10,000 in grants to fix his car and home.

And the financial analyst in Jasper County who embezzled $274,000 by creating bogus invoices.

And the chief financial officer for Berkeley County schools who pocketed $1.3 million of the district’s money.

Brantley D. Thomas III (copy)

A State Law Enforcement Division agent puts shackles on former Berkeley County schools chief financial officer Brantley D.Thomas III in a Summer parking lot in September 2018. Thomas is serving a 16-year prison sentence after stealing more than $1.3 million from the school district. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Over time, corruption like this can infect morale as honest employees see superiors get away with abuse. It spreads as less honest employees join in. It harms the public servants trying to do the right thing. It affects all of us as corruption breeds cynicism toward solving real community problems.

That’s why The Post and Courier has launched “Uncovered,” a project to cast new light on questionable government conduct, especially in smaller towns. We’ll work with community newspapers, leveraging The Post and Courier’s investigative resources with reporters who know their towns inside and out. We'll publish our findings simultaneously.

This collaboration has only begun, but a team of reporters already pored through more than 12,000 pages of spending records and state ethics complaints. We’ve interviewed whistleblowers who are furious about the sense of entitlement they’ve witnessed — how some officials use their positions like personal ATMs. We’ve sifted through federal prosecution data, uncovering the disturbing decline in public corruption cases.

And we’ve asked researchers and government watchdogs about potential solutions, including remarkably easy steps that could make a difference.

We’ll dive deeper into misconduct cases during the coming months, but here’s what we’ve learned so far:

South Carolina has many islands of governance, and they are hotbeds of abuse. From the Upstate to the Lowcountry, and especially the rural areas in between, South Carolina is covered in fiefdoms of government that all but regulate themselves, avoiding scrutiny and other checks that prevent mischief.

They include county sheriffs, who have long resisted reforms, even as the train of sheriff scandals grows longer by the year. And they include the state’s dizzying number of special purpose districts, public agencies set up to supply everything from fire protection to natural gas and electricity, government bodies that affect millions of residents.

South Carolina’s five public gas authorities are prime examples of these self-regulating islands of governance. The state created them in the 1950s to help rural, mostly poor residents get natural gas to heat and cook. Today, directors serving on these boards gorge on a buffet of perks.

They routinely travel with the very executives and staff they’re supposed to regulate. They spend tens of thousands of dollars at five-star resorts, bringing their wives and husbands along. They dine at expensive restaurants, play golf, enjoy wine-tasting tours — even fly down zip lines. All on their ratepayers’ tabs. All far from the eyes of citizens they're supposed to serve.

South Carolina’s weak ethics laws make it easy for our public servants to indulge in these junkets and gifts. Under state law, most public officials merely have to report anything they receive that's worth more than $25. But time and again, officials failed to report valuable benefits and gifts.

Like the hundreds of dollars in discounts on meat smokers, grills and washing machines that the mayors and council members of Newberry and Clinton snagged — deals they got because they also sit on their local gas authority board.

Ethics cases are virtually hidden from the public anyway. Even when officials are caught violating ethics laws, their misdeeds easily go undetected by the general public. That’s because records are tucked in files at the state Ethics Commission in Columbia. But a look at these files is revealing.

They show the Ethics Commission investigated at least 675 public officials in the past decade. The files tell stories of self-dealing, theft and blatant disregard for the public trust.

Like the mayor of Yemassee who was accused of steering town money to his used-car business.

The commission could easily make its findings more accessible by posting details about these cases on its website.

Federal and state law enforcers are hamstrung or have backed away. The Justice Department prosecuted 40 percent fewer public corruption cases nationwide in 2019 than in 2000. This dramatic shift coincided with an explosion in cases against illegal immigrants. The retreat of this important federal watchdog has largely flown under the national radar.

The State Law Enforcement Division could help fill this void. But the agency has no forensic auditors, the number-crunching detectives specially trained to identify patterns in illegal spending. It has no dedicated white-collar crime unit. 

Even so, over the past decade, the agency investigated nearly 2,000 corruption-related cases. Mark Keel, SLED’s director, said the range and extent of government misconduct likely would surprise most South Carolinians.

“I think they would say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize that many people have been charged.’”

News deserts make it easier for public officials to get away with these crimes. Research shows that when newspapers close, government spending goes up. Towns and cities simply operate more efficiently when leaders know the public is watching.

But internet competitors such as Google and Facebook stripped away advertising that long supported many newspapers. At the same time, cost-cutting corporate chains and hedge funds scooped up newspapers and axed reporting staffs to squeeze out more profits.

Roughly half of all journalism jobs disappeared during the past 15 years. “Ghost papers” are one result: organizations that don’t have enough journalists to dig deep into issues. And more than one-quarter of the nation’s newspapers vanished altogether.

The stakes are high. Corruption could surge as so-called news deserts expand and federal and state prosecutors back off. Without scrutiny, we simply won’t know what our local leaders are doing, especially when it comes to those islands of government that have long operated in darkness.

Skeptical?

Let’s visit some of these islands of power, open some of those files and see what the light shows. 

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Explore public corruption across South Carolina

Click or tap the map below to explore 100 cases of public corruption.

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2. ZIP LINES AND WINE

Start with those five natural gas authorities because they epitomize public entities that rarely find themselves in the spotlight’s glare. And, to better understand them, it’s helpful to step back in time.

Back to the 1940s, when South Carolina was in a tug of war: pulled back by poverty and the legacies of slavery, pulled forward by the post-war boom. Many parts of South Carolina remained mired in poverty. Malaria was a killer in swampy areas from the coast to Orangeburg. More than 90 percent of the state’s rural residents lacked electricity and other basic services. Private utilities hadn't met their needs. New government agencies stepped into this void.

The state created the S.C. Public Service Authority, better known as Santee Cooper. Santee Cooper drained malaria-infested swamps. It built dams and power plants. It helped electrify the state. Amid this success, communities in five rural areas created special purpose districts to supply their residents with natural gas.

In the Upstate counties of Anderson and Pickens, civic leaders created Fort Hill Natural Gas Authority. In the Midlands, they formed Clinton Newberry Natural Gas Authority. And north of Columbia, leaders in Chester, Lancaster and York counties each set up their own gas agencies.

Today, these five public utilities serve 160,000 customers. Each has its own board of directors. The governor appoints these board members after local officials make recommendations. These boards hire CEOs and approve their salaries and bonuses. They set rates for customers. Regulated only by these boards, these utilities have unusual independence. They don’t answer to state regulators, as investor-owned utilities do. Board members aren’t elected, so voters have no direct say.

How are they doing?

Support The Post and Courier Investigative Fund: Our Public Service and Investigative reporting is the most important, and most expensive, work we do. We need your financial backing to produce these stories that drive change in our communities big and small throughout the state. Please donate today.

•••

A look at their spending reveals a portrait of excess. 

Consider: In July 2018, staff and board members from the Chester, Lancaster and York gas authorities flew across the country to Portland, Ore., for the annual American Public Gas Association conference. Most took their wives or husbands along, all on ratepayers’ tabs, receipts and airline records show.

Once there, they charged the agency’s credit card $1,354 to tool around on Segways. The York contingent paid for a $3,600 "sea to summit" winery tour one day. The next day they took a $3,300 tour of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood. The excursion ended with a cozy dinner in a stone lodge overlooking the 620-foot Multnomah Falls.

Together, the three authorities spent more than $160,000 on that one conference in Portland. That’s enough to give every one of their roughly 180 employees $900 salary boosts.

Was the Portland junket a one-off?

In 2019, the American Public Gas Association had its summer conference in Stowe, Vt., home to the von Trapp family, the inspiration for the movie "The Sound of Music."

Here in the scenic Green Mountains, groups from York and Lancaster flew through tree canopies on zip lines at a cost of $1,545, including a photo package of their adventures, receipts show. They toured the nearby Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory. York’s group spent $357 on glass-blowing lessons. After the tours, they socialized at bars, racking up a tab of $431 at the Linehouse, a lounge described in travel blogs as an invitation-only “speakeasy.” One night, they met for a $2,600 wine-tasting party. Organized by the wife of York’s executive director, James Sprouse, the get-together featured shrimp skewers, sandwiches and chocolates.

Stowe for uncovered story

South Carolina gas authority leaders in 2019 decamped to Stowe, Vermont, for a conference, where they flew down zip lines and went to a wine tasting party, racking up $130,000 in charges. Stowe is famous for its ski resort on Mount Mansfield. File/Toby Talbot/AP

According to York's own travel guidelines, the agency expects employees to be "cost conscious" and spend money "as carefully and judiciously as the individual would spend his or her own funds."

The cost of the Stowe conference for York and Lancaster ratepayers? 

At least $130,000. That's twice what typical families in those counties earn in a year.

Notably absent on that summertime trip to Vermont: Chester’s board members. Some reportedly didn’t like the rugged venue. So only two top Chester gas authority executives went, along with their wives. The foursome still managed to rack up more than $6,400 in charges.

To make up for the lost junket, the Chester board convened for three days at the stately Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville. And the agenda was light, a couple of meetings in the mornings. This gave board members and staff plenty of time for golf, which cost the agency $910, and a $738 tour of the Biltmore Estate, the Gilded Age mansion built by the Vanderbilts.

The Chester agency’s employee handbook says “employees are expected to limit expenses to reasonable amounts.” And South Carolina's ethics law says a public official may not "use his official office ... to obtain an economic interest for himself, a member of his immediate family" or associated businesses.

The price tag for three days at the Grove Park Inn with just a handful of meetings?

Close to $34,000.

Paul Dillingham, an attorney for the three authorities, defended the expenses as justifiable, especially given that the agencies have kept rates flat over the past five years. In statements to The Post and Courier, he said his clients consider conferences "purely educational and team building" meetings. Regarding alcohol purchases, he said it was "standard procedure" to have alcohol for social events.

chester gas ribbon cutting

Staff and board members of Chester County Natural Gas Authority at a ribbon cutting for their new building in 2018. From left to right, Jason Stewart, general manager, Richard Hall, board member, Marvin Waldrep, board member, W.T. Holmes, Michael Enoch, executive director of Patriots Energy Group. Brian Garner/The (Chester) News & Reporter

Asked why the agencies paid for spouses, Dillingham described the extra expenses as "relatively minuscule" — even though air fares for spouses to attend the Portland and Vermont conferences cost at least $16,000, receipts show.

He also noted that "a number of our directors are senior citizens who would not logically travel very far away from home without their spouses for support." He added that his clients consider their spouses "ambassadors."

"Wow! Now that's some blatant disregard for ethics and responsibility," said Jeremy Clark, co-founder of Chester Citizens for Ethical Government, after learning of the gas authority revelations.

Clark is a former Army intelligence officer who grew frustrated with the misconduct he saw around him in Chester — examples like the former sheriff, Alex "Big A" Underwood, who treated himself to first-class flights and luxury hotel rooms; and the ex-county supervisor, Shane Stuart, arrested last year on charges of methamphetamine trafficking while using a county vehicle.

Clark said excessive spending harms trust and can lead to higher utility rates — differences "that may make the difference between people putting food on the table and buying the medications they need, or keeping the lights on and the heat going."

But, when it comes to wining and dining, are the Chester, Lancaster and York agencies outliers?

Let's look at the other two gas authorities, Fort Hill and Clinton Newberry.

Montage Palmetto Bluff (copy)

The Clinton Newberry Natural Gas Authority decamped to Montage Palmetto Bluff Resort in Bluffton in 2018 for a training meeting that cost ratepayers more than $44,000. File/Provided

•••

Same stories, similar resorts.

In the fall of 2018, Fort Hill’s board and staff gathered in Highlands, N.C. They stayed at the Old Edwards Inn & Spa, “the ultimate getaway for life’s special celebrations,” according to the inn’s website. There was no public notice.

It was early October, when the foliage turns and room rates can exceed $400 a night. Board members and staff convened for short meetings in the morning that included presentations by two gas industry consultants. After lunch on the first day, they went on a $1,180 “Rainforest Tour” in a military-style vehicle. That night, they dined at Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro, where entrees of lamb and venison range from $32 to $40. The tab was $2,478. They soaked ratepayers for the $20,000 hotel bill, which included more than $5,500 in banquet charges.

Ken Porter has been Fort Hill’s CEO for 17 years. In a statement, he described the Highlands retreat as “not an official board meeting with business decisions before the board.” He said it served rather as “an educational conference” to keep board members aware of industry developments, as well as a chance for staff and board members to “foster communication and generate ideas.” Allowing spouses to attend “added only the minimal expense of spouses’ meals,” he said.

Clemson stadium uncovered story

Officials at Fort Hill Natural Gas Authority spent $24,000 on Clemson University athletic events, including Clemson football season tickets. File/Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina

Porter also is a Clemson fan — his LinkedIn page shows him opening a door with a bright orange Clemson Tigers paw, as if entering a locker room. His agency bought nearly $20,000 in tickets for Clemson University athletic events since 2018, including $5,350 for eight season tickets roughly between the 10 and 30 yard lines, complete with seat cushions for an extra $440.

Porter explained that Clemson is the authority’s largest customer, and that because of this relationship the agency buys season tickets to football games. He said he frequently gives those seats to Fort Hill employees, and that none went to board members.

Records show the agency also bought tickets to the 2019 ACC Championship football game in North Carolina, and four away games for $1,490. In a letter, Porter said he neglected to reimburse the agency for the 2019 ACC Championship tickets, “the result of an inadvertent oversight” that he corrected after the newspaper's inquiry. Porter’s salary last year was $510,000 — nearly five times what Henry McMaster makes as South Carolina's governor.

And the Clinton Newberry Natural Gas Authority?

uncovered story Kiawah

The main entrance to The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

During the past five years, the agency spent more than $337,000 on its board retreats, dinners, parties and Christmas gifts, records show.

That includes a $57,000 stay at The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island in 2016 and a $47,000 meeting in 2017 at the Omni Grove Park Inn.

It includes a trip back to the ocean in 2018, this time at the Montage Palmetto Bluff, a five-star resort upriver from Hilton Head Island. “A Classic Southern Escape,” the resort’s website says, noting its eight restaurants and Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course.

Payments to the hotel exceeded $44,000. That's more than what the average household in Newberry earns in a year.

And that $44,000 didn’t include “training” swag: the $1,742 spent on 13 blue “fringe blankets” and the $826 for 13 “ole big boy” oyster knives by Carolina Shuckers.

Lastly, in 2019, Clinton Newberry officials went to the Old Edwards Inn, the same luxury resort in Highlands the folks from Fort Hill enjoyed. Their hotel bill eclipsed $31,000, including $3,234 spent at Acorn’s, a woman’s clothing boutique at the inn. It’s unclear what was purchased. The agency wasn’t able to provide receipts or an explanation about what these public officials received.

There were no public notices for any of these meetings.

Clinton Mayor Robert McLean and Newberry Mayor Foster Senn also sit on the authority's board. In a joint statement, they described these pricey trips as "training sessions." They said they bring in industry experts to educate board and staff about "strategy and long range planning." As with Porter, the head of Fort Hill's gas authority, the two mayors said the meetings didn't involve "official business," so they didn't notify the public or keep minutes.

But two attorneys for the South Carolina Press Association, Jay Bender and Taylor Smith, said these meetings violate the state's Freedom of Information Act. The law requires public bodies to give notice and keep minutes whenever they meet, no matter the location or whether the officials take action.

"I see a violation in every one of those meetings, and I see serious possibilities of ethics violations, as well," Bender said. "Why should the public care? The consumers and ratepayers pay for the gas, but if you have these people who are in charge running around, meeting illegally, spending money illegally — and I think paying for spouses is a serious problem — it's going to increase the cost of gas for everybody. How is that appropriate?" 

hampton county paper_V0V3183.jpg

Corruption could surge as so-called news deserts expand and federal and state prosecutors back off. Without scrutiny, we simply won’t know what our local leaders are doing, especially in rural areas of South Carolina, such as Hampton County. The Hampton County Guardian is part of Morris Publishing, which also owns The Augusta Chronicle. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

3. LOOPHOLE 

Thanks to South Carolina's weak ethics laws, many of these expenses fall into legal gray areas. These laws allow public servants to accept all kinds of gifts and trips. Officials need only report them to the state Ethics Commission in what's called a "statement of economic interest" — anything worth more than $25. According to the law, that includes “entertainment, food, beverage, travel and lodging.”

But there's an exception.

Board members of special purpose districts, the regulators of those islands of governance, typically don't have to file those disclosures.

It's a loophole that smooths the way for boards to accept perks and gifts — and makes it tougher for the public to find out about them.

Want to learn more about spending on these islands? You'll likely be forced to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

You'll have to wait for the agency's decision to release the records.

And you might be asked to pay. That's what Parker Sewer and Fire, a special purpose district in the Greenville area, did recently in response to the newspaper's request. Its initial estimate: $800 before the newspaper negotiated the price down to zero. Another agency in Pickens County wanted to charge $2,115.

Still, your request might yield eyebrow-raising finds.

Such as the $2,140 custom glassware from Georgetown's Rice Birds shop that York gas board members received for Christmas in 2018.

Or the $1,276 discount a York gas authority board member got last fall for a new tankless water heater. 

Not all leaders of special purpose districts can escape this loophole. Some board members also hold elective offices and therefore must disclose their freebies. This is the case with the seven-person board of Clinton Newberry Natural Gas Authority, six of whom also are mayors or council members. Here's how they landed some nice deals: 

The gas authority has its own showrooms in Clinton and Newberry that stock heaters, gas logs, grills and other appliances for sale. If you're a board member or employee, you can buy these appliances at cost, a savings of at least 15 percent over prices regular customers pay.

Lemont Glasgow, a board member who also sits on Newberry City Council, took advantage of this discount seven times over the past four years, records show.

All told, Glasgow got more than $4,000 in appliances at cost: water heaters, gas logs — even an $800 meat smoker fueled by wood pellets. He used an $800 gift certificate from the authority in August to buy a washer-and-dryer set, paying just $471 for appliances that cost $2,000 at Lowe's. 

According to state law, elected officials who receive discounts and rebates worth more than $25 must report them to the state Ethics Commission. Glasgow reported a $700 gift certificate in 2018 but none of the discounts. He hasn't filed his 2020 form yet.

Two mayors also scored deals that aren't on their ethics forms. McLean, mayor of Clinton and chairman of the gas authority board, saved at least $210 on the gas logs and grill he bought at cost.

And Senn, mayor of Newberry and the board's vice chairman, saved about $300 on an electric washer, gas logs and a grill.

In addition to these discounts, board members enjoyed another valuable perk: Authority workers delivered and installed the appliances for free. Ordinary ratepayers pay between $50 to $70 an hour for these services.

“It takes at least one hour to install gas logs, and often two or three hours,” said Christopher Floyd, a supervisor and gas authority employee for nearly 28 years. “They didn’t have to pay a dime for the labor.”

Floyd initially declined to discuss the agency’s practices, fearing retaliation, but he felt he had to stand up for his customers.

“My job is to make sure people have heat and hot water. I know people who are out there struggling to pay their bills. But (the board and staff) are out there partying and getting those discounts. Right is right and wrong is wrong.”

Glasgow said the $800 gift certificate was a door prize handed out at a Christmas dinner in 2019 with area city councils and gas authority board members.

McLean and Senn said in their statement that they didn't consider the discounts gifts because they still paid for the appliances, albeit at cost. As for the free delivery and installations, they said the agency "sees value in having its associates use the products it sells in order to be able to make recommendations to inquiring customers."

Last year, the Clinton and Newberry mayors and council members did report some of their gas authority gifts and trips.

On Feb. 10 and 11, 2020, they all amended their Ethics Commission disclosures for the previous three years. This time they included some of the gifts they'd received, such as the oyster knives, Christmas wine baskets and $1,600 for “board training.”

It happened after The Post and Courier asked to see their records.

Support The Post and Courier Investigative Fund: Our Public Service and Investigative reporting is the most important, and most expensive, work we do. We need your financial backing to produce these stories that drive change in our communities big and small throughout the state. Please donate today.

easley paper _V0V3844.jpg

Small town newspapers have long been among the most important community watchdogs, with studies showing that government spending increases when newspapers close. The Sentinel-Progress in Easley in 2017 exposed how a Pickens County official steered thousands of recreation funds to a business he was associated with. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

4. IN THE FILES

It’s the state Ethics Commission’s job to keep track of complaints against officials in all these agencies, as well as track campaign money and the lobbyists who try to influence our lawmakers. It’s a tall order.

South Carolina has more than 680 local governments and special purpose districts, including those five public gas authorities. Last year, the Ethics Commission received more than 22,640 complaints, statements of economic interest, campaign disclosures and lobbying reports. Keeping track of this avalanche of paperwork are only 16 staffers, including four investigators and one forensic auditor.

The commission also holds hearings similar to trials, and can dole out fines and other punishments. It investigated allegations against at least 675 public officials during the past decade, a Post and Courier analysis found. Most were for paperwork violations, such as failing to turn in a campaign finance report on time. But the newspaper identified at least 92 officials who had been accused of serious ethical breaches. 

Still, it’s difficult for the public to learn what happened in these cases. The commission publishes a bare bones roster of names and case numbers on its website. The list has no other details. No clues to the seriousness of the offenses. No mention of their titles or where they serve. No details about whether they were punished. Less information than an old phone directory. To learn more, you must ask for individual case files, and the commission can take weeks to fill these requests.

The Post and Courier obtained many of these eye-opening files.

There was the case of Pickens County Councilman G. Neil Smith, who steered $25,000 in public recreation funds to Broadcast Music Inc., a billion-dollar music publisher. He sits on the company's board. Smith also tried unsuccessfully to send BMI another $65,000, in part to bring Grammy-winner Vince Gill to the area. The Ethics Commission ordered him to pay $3,500 in fines and fees.

And the Midlands clerk, Adrienne Thompson, who hired her son to move furniture and assemble shelves at Town Hall. The son scored about $2,000 in public money. The commission ordered the clerk to pay $1,500 in fines and fees. 

And Yemassee Mayor Jerry Cook, who cosigned checks from the town to his used-car business for auto repair work. The commission fined him $500.

A surprising number of cases have not been previously reported by other news organizations.

Like the Greenville-area case involving Mark Ells, a commissioner with Parker Sewer and Fire. He was accused of trying to steer a 2016 bid for a tree removal contract toward a business associate. The commission ordered Ells to pay $800 in fines and fees.

He still sits on a board that controls $14 million in public money.

And the case in Florence, where then-County Treasurer Dean Fowler Jr. was accused of leaning on an officer to get out of traffic tickets. There's usually "a brotherhood" about these things, he reportedly told the officer, mentioning his work as a state constable. When the officer declined to dismiss the tickets, Fowler allegedly threatened to use his constable position to do a background check. Fowler paid $1,350 in ethics fees and fines.

Contacted by The Post and Courier, many of these officials said the findings against them were unfair or politically motivated. They said it was cheaper merely to settle with the commission than fight.

Ells, the Parker commissioner, thought the Ethics Commission would clear him, insisting the bid information he gave to a business associate had been discussed during a public session of the Parker board. Then the commission slapped him with a fine.

“I think they were totally false,” Ells said of the charges. “I think they changed things, and they had me over a barrel.”

Said Fowler, the former Florence County treasurer: “I’m just glad to be out of the whole mess. I just want to be forgotten.”

It’s easier for officials to be forgotten given the commission’s hard-to-access files.

It took months for The Post and Courier to obtain and parse thousands of pages of ethics cases. This shrouded system strips voters of making informed decisions. It creates a less forceful deterrent because word doesn’t get out about punishments and fines.

Meghan Walker, the commission’s executive director, said the sheer volume of cases would make it difficult to put case details and documents online.

In response, The Post and Courier created a searchable database of the more than 90 serious cases reporters identified. 

Whether online or stuffed in file cabinets, this hoard of misbehavior shows how pervasive and insidious corruption is across the state, raising the question:

Who else is looking for it?

Lost Trust FOR UNCOVERED STORY

Ron Cobb (left) and his attorney, Stephen Schmutz, walk to the federal courthouse in Charleston during the Operation Lost Trust FBI sting period of the 1990s. File/Staff

5. WHERE ARE THE WATCHDOGS?

When it comes to impact, FBI and Justice Department prosecutors have long been the nation's most aggressive public corruption fighters.

It was the FBI, with help from SLED, that busted up a crooked ring of politicians in Dillon County during the 1980s — a vote-buying scandal that included a judge, sheriff and council members.

It was the Justice Department that exposed a kickback scheme in the late 1980s at Clinton Newberry Natural Gas Authority. The scam involved the general manager, who was caught securing more than $400,000 for himself.

It was the Justice Department that orchestrated Operation Lost Trust in the early 1990s, a dragnet that led to 27 convictions, including 17 lawmakers — roughly a tenth of the Legislature. One Lowcountry legislator bragged that he would trade his vote for a couple of suits and some shirts. 

And it was the Justice Department that charged after the leaders of SCANA, alleging that executives lied over and over about the progress of a nuclear reactor project at the V.C. Summer plant in rural Fairfield County. The deception cost ratepayers and investors $9 billion before the project was shut down for good.

uncovered story Incumbent Dan Johnson and lawyer Byron Gipson bid for support in primary (copy)

A Post and Courier investigation uncovered lavish spending by Columbia-area prosecutor Dan Johnson in 2018, practices that triggered state and federal investigations. Johnson eventually pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Before the charges, he spoke at a candidates forum in Columbia with his opponent then, lawyer Byron Gipson. File/Joseph Cranney/Staff

Unlike county sheriffs and other local law enforcers, the FBI typically isn’t handcuffed by political favors and beholden to local power brokers.

But in recent years, this important federal watchdog has lost its bite.

The Justice Department handled 40 percent fewer public corruption cases in 2019 than it did in 20 years ago, according to an analysis of data obtained by Syracuse University's TRAC project.

The data shows a slow decline of official corruption investigations began under President George W. Bush's administration, sped up during Barack Obama's administration and fell off a cliff during Donald Trump’s tenure.

In South Carolina, federal investigators pursued just a handful of corruption cases — on average six to seven a year during the Bush and Obama administrations and just three a year during Trump’s four years, the TRAC data showed.

Other states, including North Carolina, have seen similar drop-offs. Why?

Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland (copy)

Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland talks with members of the media in 2016. Strickland, 40, pleaded guilty in 2020 to charges that he beat his girlfriend, ordered deputies to work on his properties and used county resources to further what prosecutors called an “inappropriate” relationship. He was sentenced to 5 years of probation. File/AP

Professors Kristine Artello and Jay Albanese of Virginia Commonwealth University interviewed 40 former investigators and prosecutors to better understand how corruption happens and how they prosecute cases. They noted the decline in corruption investigations. Was it more terrorism cases? No, they spiked after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but then leveled off.

“Then we ran data on immigration cases,” Artello said.

Federal immigration prosecutions increased 600 percent, from 16,724 cases in 2000 to 117,375 in 2019, the TRAC data revealed. 

Artello is troubled by this shift in priorities.

“Where does all the money and prosecution go? To immigration cases. Against the people who are least likely to be able to afford an attorney.”

The Justice Department has left a void that other agencies simply aren’t equipped to fill, she said.

What about SLED?

uncovered story Sheriff Indicted

Suspended Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood (second from right) walks out of the courtroom Jan. 9, 2020, after a bond hearing on state charges of embezzlement and misconduct in office. The charges came after an FBI investigation spurred by a Post and Courier report in 2018. File/Jeffrey Collins/AP

In the past decade, the agency handled 206 embezzlement cases and 308 breach-of trust cases in both the public and private sectors. It investigated 1,443 cases of government misconduct. But the agency lacks a single forensic auditor. And without a dedicated white-collar crime unit, "all of our folks have to work them," said Keel, the SLED director.

The agency has about 400 agents but needs many more to keep up with their existing workload of arsons, police shootings and other crimes, Keel said. He asked for an additional 57 agents, crime scene and lab workers in the coming fiscal year, including one new forensic auditor. That one position would add $159,000 to the state's current $9 billion budget.

Without forensic auditors, SLED often asks local communities to pay for auditors themselves. But doing that can slow a case to a crawl, Keel acknowledged.

Can sheriffs and police fill the federal void? 

Usually not, said Artello, the corruption expert from Virginia.

“Local law enforcement is focused on protecting local people from violent crime.” She said beat cops or detectives may not have the accounting skills to ferret out embezzlers and white-collar crooks. And local law enforcers may be leery about going after elected leaders who can fire them or cut their budgets.

As a result, fewer people are “watching the hen house,” she said. “So no one knows where the eggs are going.”

Williamsburg County Supervisor Tiffany Wright is sworn into office

In January 2019, Williamsburg County Supervisor Tiffany Wright was sworn into office and soon found herself investigating one of the county's agencies. Michaele Dukes/The Kingstree News

6. CONTROLLING THE VIRUS

Government agencies themselves face daunting challenges in policing their own ranks. In January 2019, Williamsburg County swore in a new county supervisor, Tiffany Wright, a former military and civilian police officer who also holds a doctorate in business. Her law enforcement instincts kicked in as she heard rumors about the Williamsburg County Transit System.

The agency operates a fleet of buses in the county that also ferries residents to the job-rich Grand Strand — a crucial link for one of the poorest counties in South Carolina.

“I was told by one councilman, a good ol' boy, to stay away from the agency," Wright recalled. "I did the opposite."

The county shelled out $10,000 to hire a private accounting firm, the Hicks Guerry Group, to do a forensic audit. They found a mess.

Records showed that the agency’s executive director, Michael Burgess, bought more than $12,200 in prepaid Visa gift cards in 2018, each embossed with the words “Hot Cocoa Holidays,” 58 cards in all. The auditors identified who received 33 cards worth $6,850. But they couldn’t account for 25 cards worth $5,200, including three cards for $500 apiece, according to the audit, first obtained by The Kingstree News.

The auditors also identified numerous other problems, including more than $8,700 for hotels and other travel that lacked basic documentation. The agency acted “like an autonomous entity,” one of the auditors, Janet Hicks, later told Williamsburg County Council. 

Burgess retired two days after the forensic audit's results were made public. At the time, he drew a salary of about $112,000. He declined to comment.

Meantime, Wright, the county supervisor, heard about issues in other departments.

She wanted to dig deeper.

But she said the county couldn’t afford it.

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•••

Some researchers who have studied corruption compare it to a contagious virus. Corruption can invade the body politic and evade immune responses designed to identify and stop the invaders. Our cities and towns are stronger when their corruption fighters, their immune systems, are stronger. How can we strengthen this system?

The state Ethics Commission could make it easier to see which officials have run afoul of ethics laws.

The FBI and SLED could prioritize corruption cases to create a better deterrent.

State lawmakers could pass stronger ethics and FOIA laws. They could start by closing the loophole that lets boards of special purpose districts avoid reporting gifts and junkets.

They could give SLED more money to hire forensic auditors — proper resources to go after white-collar criminals.

And they could begin this process in a matter of weeks, when the House begins its debate over the state budget.

Mischief spreads when no one’s looking.

A telling moment came early in the newspaper’s look at the state’s natural gas authorities.

A reporter sought Fort Hill Natural Gas Authority's spending records under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

An official responded that no one had ever asked for this information before. •

You’ve seen the headlines: A corrupt official embezzles more than a million dollars from a cash-strapped school district. A corrupt sheriff orders his deputies to work on his barn, but what causes a public official to misbehave?

Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith reported from Charleston, Joseph Cranney and Avery G. Wilks from Columbia.

Tony Bartelme, senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier, has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Twitter: @tbartelme Signal: 843-412-2283.

Watchdog/Public Service Editor

Glenn Smith is editor of the Watchdog and Public Service team and helped write the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, “Till Death Do Us Part.” Reach him securely on Signal at 843-607-0809 or by email at gsmith5@protonmail.com.

Joseph Cranney is an investigative reporter in Columbia, with a focus on government corruption and injustices in the criminal legal system. He can be reached securely by Proton mail at jcranney@prontonmail.com or on Signal at 215-285-9083.

Projects reporter

Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. The USC Honors College graduate was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year for his reporting on South Carolina's nuclear fiasco and abuses within the state's electric cooperatives.

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