Warren Bolton | Public corruption, shattered trust

Isolated allegations of public corruption at various levels of government have despicably converged on our capital city, further eroding what little trust citizens might still have in their elected and appointed leaders.

Last week was particularly harsh on the public conscience: Even as the public corruption trial of former S.C. State University board chairman Jonathan Pinson revealed alleged illegalities as well as embarrassing and distasteful acts involving college officials and others, federal and state authorities indicted four Lexington County men, including Sheriff James Metts and two other former local public officials, in an ongoing corruption investigation.

While all involved are presumed innocent until proven guilty, public confidence has been seriously damaged. And it remains to be seen who will step into the breach to even try to begin rebuilding that delicate trust.

State lawmakers had an opportunity to do just that during the session that ended Thursday, by passing real ethics reform. But they failed to pass even a watered-down version of an ethics bill that didn’t include meaningful changes in ethics enforcement but did offer decent disclosure requirements. Instead of focusing on that legislation, senators allowed ethics opponents to waste time with other, less important matters and run out the clock, leaving ethics reform dead.

Although meaningful ethics reform has been held up as a legislative priority the past two years, it’s obvious that many lawmakers are more interested in protecting themselves and preserving personal privileges than making sure things are done aboveboard and in a manner that voters can trust.

How else can you explain the Legislature allowing the session to end last week, knowing the swath of public corruption that, while not all originating in Columbia, had settled in our capital city? With the dismal news about public officials swirling around the Midlands, that would have been an opportune time to pass even a decent disclosure bill — which would cover public officials at the local and state levels — with the promise to come back and take care of ethics next session.

But what did our lawmakers do? They packed up and left town, knowing that Sheriff James Metts, the state’s longest-serving current sheriff at 42 years, had just been indicted on charges for accepting bribes in return for interfering with the identification and processing of illegal immigrants detained at his county jail. Also indicted were former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier, former South Congaree Police Chief Jason Amodio and restaurateur Greg Leon.

Mr. Frazier and Mr. Amodio were charged with violations related to video poker. Mr. Leon and Mr. Frazier are accused of bribing Sheriff Metts, who was suspended by Gov. Nikki Haley.

Lawmakers left town as the shocking indictment of Sheriff Metts collided with the Pinson trial, which was producing one jolting revelation after another in its first week. Some of the witnesses who took the stand were former S.C. State officials, including former university attorney Ed Givens, who has pleaded guilty to having knowledge of crimes tied to the case.

More shocks

to come?

Mr. Pinson faces numerous charges of public corruption, including bribery, conspiracy and using his position for personal gain. Six others — former S.C. State campus police chief Michael Bartley is among them — have pleaded guilty in connection with various schemes for which federal prosecutors are trying Mr. Pinson. All eventually are expected to testify against Mr. Pinson.

Of particular importance in the Midlands is the fact that the name of Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a close associate and business partner of Mr. Pinson’s, has continually come up in the trial — although he hasn’t been charged with anything and nothing I’ve heard seems to constitute illegal dealings.

That said, there has been testimony alleging that Mr. Benjamin was party to activities that could be characterized as personally embarrassing and even self-dealing. And the way the prosecution has cast such a shadow on the mayor makes you wonder why he wasn’t charged, or else why prosecutors are so intent on tarnishing his name. Maybe things will become clearer by trial’s end. In the meantime, a bad light has been cast upon Mr. Benjamin, who has said through a spokesman that he will not speak publicly while he is a potential witness.

But what makes lawmakers’ decision to leave town without passing ethics reform most egregious is the fact that they did so knowing that House Speaker Bobby Harrell would be back in town this week to appear before the Supreme Court as it considers Attorney General Alan Wilson’s attempt to overturn a lower court ruling ordering him to stop his State Grand Jury investigation into corruption allegations against Mr. Harrell.

The combination of the Harrell case on the Supreme Court’s docket along with the continuing Pinson trial ensures no respite from last week’s drama.

And aftershocks linger in the Metts indictment, with speculation that more people could be charged as state and federal authorities continue a joint investigation into corruption. It was a joint federal and state probe into illegal gambling involving Internet sweepstakes in Lexington County that led to the indictment of Sheriff Metts and the three others.

State and federal prosecutors have made it clear they don’t intend to let public corruption go unchecked. And they shouldn’t. Lawbreakers should be charged and punished.

Who will

restore trust?

While it’s never good to see people’s political, professional and personal lives destroyed, that’s the price elected officials pay for breaking laws and trampling on the public trust.

The public corruption being alleged is nothing short of humiliating for voters and citizens who trust that their elected and appointed representatives will display a high level of integrity. When those chosen leaders run amok, the public can only stand by in frustration and take it — absent aggressive prosecution by state and federal authorities.

Make no mistake: This is a critical moment. Confidence in those who hold public office is on the brink of collapse. Whatever the scandals’ cost to the public purse, it will be eclipsed many times over by the incalculable cost to public confidence in government leadership.

And, to think, we’ve only just begun to peel back the layers to these complex public corruption cases. We’ve got untold investigations and legal proceedings to go before we know what the end will bring.

But there is hope. It’s a hope inherent to our imperfect, sometimes messy democratic system. While this shameful, embarrassing moment illustrates the risky nature of entrusting elected representatives with significant power, the fact is that our system is very resilient.

There is always the hope that trustworthy people with high moral standards will step forward and that voters will be re-energized and embrace such leadership.

But what to do in the meantime, when the public confidence is in such a fragile state?

Who is there among our chosen leaders — from the State House to city hall to the nearest police or sheriff’s department — who can and will begin the effort to reassure citizens that their trust is not misplaced?