By Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith
“Uncovered” is creating a series of investigative articles to look at how the lack of watchdog journalism in communities, combined with weak ethics laws, is a perfect storm for corruption in South Carolina. The stories are written by the Post and Courier of Charleston’s Watchdog and Public Service Team and are being reprinted in The Advertiser and here in partnership with that newspaper and affiliated website.
A Post and Courier-led Uncovered investigation into local government misconduct has fueled calls from lawmakers and South Carolina’s governor to tighten ethics laws. And some agencies have said they will reexamine longstanding spending practices.
But other agencies remain unmoved by Uncovered’s findings. Their leaders continue to defend traveling with spouses to five-star resorts for “work retreats” — trips that violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act and involved just a handful of meetings but plenty of time for golf, and, in one case, glass-blowing lessons.
Typical was the response from Rocky Hudson, general manager of the Lancaster County Gas Authority, which soaked ratepayers for a zip line excursion, a wine-tasting party and the aforementioned glass-blowing class on a Vermont trip: “At the end of the day,” he told The Lancaster News, an Uncovered partner, “I can stand firm and say that we have done nothing illegal, unethical or corrupt.”
Such resistance is a reminder that exposing questionable use of your tax dollars is an uphill climb. Experts and longtime government watchdogs say changing a culture of abuse and entitlement requires constant vigilance and concerted pushing from law enforcement, news organizations and citizens’ groups.
Through Uncovered, The Post and Courier is teaming with community newspapers to shine a brighter light on public officials who use their positions for private gain. The first installments focused on free-spending gas authorities, fire districts and other special-purpose districts that operate with little outside scrutiny.
The reporting led one agency to reconsider its spending practices. Another canceled a retreat at a pricey North Carolina resort. S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and a trio of Upstate lawmakers called for more scrutiny of special-purpose districts. Another group of state lawmakers filed a bill to ratchet up ethics reporting requirements for these agencies.
And some boards have taken the unusual step of addressing their travel plans in public. In Greenville, utility commissioners ended a meeting by assuring ratepayers that any retreats would be done locally this year. In Columbia, Richland One school board members took meeting time to explain their education conference in Hilton Head and thank taxpayers for footing the bill.
But truly changing a public service culture that has operated for decades with loose restrictions and a deep grab-bag of perks will take time and effort, government watchdogs caution.
To assess this challenge, look no further than South Carolina’s shady sheriffs and John Crangle’s campaign to stop their scandalous parade.
With a gravelly voice and persistence, Crangle has been fighting government corruption for decades, a fight he can trace to the 1960s, when he taught history at South Dakota State University. One cold January, he discovered players on the school’s football team had stolen an exam and cheated on the test. He reported this to administrators but got fired for blowing the whistle.
“That experience made me a different person.”
In the mid-1980s, Crangle took a job in Columbia with Common Cause, a national government watchdog group.
“I realized then that the legislature was rotted out with corruption, that lobbyists were giving out cash and golf clubs and drinks.”
The gravy train slowed in the early 1990s, when federal agents set up a vote-buying sting. Called Operation Lost Trust, the dragnet snared 17 lawmakers and half a dozen lobbyists. Lost Trust generated new ethics laws. But Crangle said South Carolina remained a hotbed of corruption, especially when it came to the state’s 46 county sheriffs.
Sheriffs have long operated as islands of governance. They control many pots of cash, ranging from jail budgets to drug seizure funds. Once elected, many grow even more powerful, earning favors and loyalty as their tenures lengthen.
Jessica Pishko, a political consultant who studied sheriffs at the University of South Carolina’s Rule of Law Collaborative, said such positions lend themselves to graft.
“For sheriffs, it’s generally that they don’t have oversight, either from outside the office or from the inside, because sheriffs can fire whomever they please for any reason.”
In this vacuum of oversight, 14 South Carolina sheriffs in the past decade have been arrested on charges ranging from drug dealing to driving under the influence. Put another way, roughly one in three counties have seen their sheriffs charged with breaking laws they swore to uphold.
This includes former Chester County Sheriff Alex “Big A” Underwood, who treated himself to first-class flights and luxury hotel rooms, and ordered deputies to work on his barn. It also includes former Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland, who pleaded guilty to charges he beat his girlfriend and ordered deputies to work on his properties.
As the tally of scandals grew, Crangle urged lawmakers to introduce reform bills. A few seemed interested, but many backed off, telling him that if the S.C. Sheriff Association didn’t back a bill, nothing would pass.
Crangle said he contacted Oconee County Sheriff Mike Crenshaw, the association’s president, and pitched an idea: Have a team from one sheriff’s department do an inspection of a neighboring department, a way of self-policing.
In an interview, Crenshaw said he was open to new ideas, such as intensive ethics training, but wasn’t sure Crangle’s idea would truly reduce the number of misbehaving sheriffs.
“I think John’s heart is in the right direction: What can we do to stop South Carolina sheriffs from getting in trouble? I just don’t know if this (an inspection) is the correct process.”
Whatever happens, Crangle said, nothing will change unless sheriffs and other public officials know that the public is watching them and will hold them accountable for any misbehavior.
“Our sense of right or wrong is shaped by other people, and in some agencies, you begin to think wrong is right. You begin to think what isn’t normal is really OK, and pretty soon you become part of that corrupt culture.”
The Post and Courier’s first installment of Uncovered on Feb. 14 showed how misconduct and lavish spending flourishes because of exceptions in state ethics laws, weak enforcement and shrinking scrutiny as news deserts grow.
It focused on five public gas utilities — special-purpose districts that supply natural gas to more than 160,000 customers across the state.
Records show they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on far-flung conferences and retreats, often taking their spouses. Board members also used their public positions to get deals on meat smokers, grills and washing machines, buying them directly from the agencies at cost and having employees install them for free — deals unavailable to the public.
Reactions to the revelations were swift. On their first day back from a break, four South Carolina lawmakers filed a bill that would require boards of special-purpose districts to report gifts, discounts and other items of value, just as other public officials do. A loophole in state ethics laws had long excluded boards from this disclosure requirement.
A second Uncovered installment exposed nepotism and other misconduct at Clear Spring Fire and Rescue near Greenville, igniting an effort by three Upstate lawmakers to craft new legislation to make these and other special-purpose districts more accountable to the people they serve.
“I don’t think anyone was really looking at those little fiefdoms being hotbeds of corruption,” said state Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville.
McMaster also called for this loophole to be closed and urged lawmakers to more stringently regulate the gas authorities. McMaster’s spokesman, Brian Symmes, said of the governor’s stance: “There’s simply too much opportunity for bad actors to abuse their positions, but the General Assembly can mitigate some of that opportunity.”
But some gas authority leaders defended the expensive trips. Jason Stewart, general manager of the Chester County Natural Gas Authority, saw no problem with his board tapping ratepayers for a three-day trip to the swank Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. — meetings that cost $34,000 for lodging, meals, golf and a tour of Biltmore Estate.
Stewart told The (Chester) News & Reporter, an Uncovered partner newspaper, that the conferences weren’t junkets or vacations because they involved “meetings, seminars and workshops,” and that board members “must remain up to date and thoroughly educated with all that entails.” He said it was customary to bring spouses, adding that “a number are somewhat older and, understandably, would hesitate to travel without familial support.”
David Knight, chair of the Lancaster gas authority board, told The Lancaster News that board members were volunteers who used these lavish excursions to learn.
“Time spent at those meetings, and especially those conferences, helps educate us about what a gas company should be doing and about coming issues,” Knight said. “We’re just laypeople, and it’s important for us to be educated about what we are supposed to do.”
But leaders of the Clinton Newberry Natural Gas Authority told The Newberry Observer, another Uncovered partner, that they would look at their spending practices after the first installment described how the agency spent $337,000 on retreats over five years. The agency’s board members also will publicly disclose discounts for appliances they received.
But the Clinton leaders insisted that spending on retreats was necessary, and that they had to go to upscale locations to attract industry experts as speakers. General Manager Jimmy Capps told the Laurens County Advertiser they’d done nothing unethical when they met out of town, without notice, and racked up $50,000-plus bills.
“I believe there was nothing corrupt here, but we will continue to make better decisions.”
Meanwhile, the Greater Greenville Sanitation District cancelled its plans for a luxury resort retreat after The Post and Courier reported Feb. 23 on its plans to spend $14,000 on about seven hours of work at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn. Executive Director Steve Cole blamed the cancellation on commissioners taking ill and leaving the board without a quorum.
“We can’t have a meeting at all with just two commissioners,” Cole told The Post and Courier. “If we go up there and spend the time and the money and yet can’t have a meeting, then there really is going to be, ‘Oh, you just went up there for the hell of it.’ ”
But Cole also noted that the group’s workshops will likely stay in Greenville from here on out.
Lynn Ballard, a Greenville County Councilman who has studied special-purpose districts, said local officials across the state likely are reassessing the optics of their spending on board retreats and conferences. Case in point: At a recent meeting of Greenville Republicans, the keynote speaker asked if anyone from the Greater Greenville Sanitation District was present.
When no one answered, the speaker sparked laughter by joking, “Oh yeah, I forgot, they’re at the Grove Park Inn,” Ballard recalled. “I think all of the (special-purpose districts) are taking notice since this story came out.”
‘It became the norm’
Some public agencies highlighted in the first Uncovered installments clearly weren’t used to the spotlight.
In Clinton, Mayor Bob McLean, who also is chairman of the Clinton Newberry Natural Gas Authority, told The Advertiser he hasn’t heard any complaints about the gas authority retreats since a local news article about a decade ago mentioned an expensive trip.
In Lancaster County, Rocky Hudson, the gas authority general manager, said board meetings are open to the public but that “in all these years, we’ve only had two people show up,” he told The Lancaster News.
Chester County had long suffered because of this lack of citizen involvement, said Jeremy Clark, co-founder of Chester Citizens for Ethical Government. Fed up with the corruption around them, the group formed about three years ago and began pressing agencies for more transparency.
“The thing is that this place has been corrupt for as long back as you can go, but had no scrutiny, so it became the norm.”
That changed when the group filed open-records requests and filed lawsuits when agencies didn’t comply.
“People want this place cleaned up, in general, but it’s also a small town with a lot of relations between people.”
Government transparency and scrutiny are keys to making real changes, Clark and other watchdogs said.
One telling example of this in action happened Feb. 15, the day after the first Uncovered report, which referenced expensive trips to the Asheville hotel and the Old Edwards Inn in Highlands, N.C.
Near the end of a routine board meeting of Greenville’s wastewater authority, Renewable Water Resources, the board turned its attention to its upcoming annual planning retreat.
“Since we have listeners that are listening in virtually, we are not going to have the retreat at the Old Edwards Inn in Highlands, N.C., nor will we be in Asheville,” one commissioner said. “It will be somewhere locally.”
“As it traditionally is,” a second commissioner added to knowing chuckles from commissioners.
Avery Wilks contributed to this report from Columbia, and Nathaniel Cary and Anna Mitchell contributed from Greenville.