Cindi’s column on Lost Trust, 20 years on

I missed Cindi Scoppe’s column over the weekend reminiscing about Lost Trust (which broke 20 years ago Sunday) until a reader mentioned Cindi’s “shout-out” to me:

If anything happened in the next year that wasn’t related to the sting, I can’t remember it. While I dissected the ethics proposals, my editor Brad Warthen led the newsroom on a yearlong examination of how the Legislative State produced not only corruption but a hapless government that answered to no one — laying the groundwork for one of the primary focuses of our later work on this editorial board.

Pushed along by Lost Trust, Gov. Carroll Campbell and Brad’s “Power Failure” series, the Legislature voted two years later to hand a third of the government over to the governor. Lawmakers unleashed the powerful State Grand Jury to investigate political corruption cases. They passed a reporter shield law after a judge ordered me and three other reporters held in federal custody for two days for refusing to testify in a corruption trial.

It was interesting to read Cindi’s memory of that from her perspective. I had forgotten a lot of the intrigue that my reporters — particularly Cindi — had to go through to find out what was going on. But then, I was mostly experiencing it second-hand, being the desk man that I was. Cindi and the others would come in with this stuff they had garnered in encounters reminiscent of Bob Woodward’s meetings with Deep Throat in the parking garage, and we’d figure out which outrageous items were worth pursuing to try to confirm immediately and which ones to set aside. And then, how in the world to nail down the relevant ones.

For me, at the epicenter of The State‘s coverage, it was a time for keeping a couple of dozen plates spinning, and was a daily challenge to an editor managing finite resources in the midst of stories that seemed to have an infinite number of branches, each one of which was a hot story in itself.

Mind you, Lost Trust wasn’t the only government scandal breaking that summer. We had the final act of the Jim Holderman collapse, a purchasing scandal involving a major agency (I don’t even remember which one now), the head of the Highway Patrol directly personally interfering with the DUI of the head of the local FBI office, and those are just the things that I remember sitting here. There was more. Fortunately, the governmental affairs staff in those days amounted to something (I may have been slightly down from my 1988 high of 10 reporters, but not by much), but there’s only so much that even that many people can do when so much is popping at the same time — and during the time of year when things are usually quiet.

And Lost Trust itself, alone, without those other scandals, would have totally consumed us days, nights and weekends. A full 10 percent of the Legislature indicted? Heady stuff.

We were well out ahead of the competition most days, and I felt proud of my team — Cindi and the others. Then the executive editor, who was new in the job (Gil Thelen), one busy day stopped by my desk to say it was all very well and good that we were staying ahead of the story and beating everybody on it, but what about the future? What, out of all this mess, might we be able to offer readers to give them the sense that something could be done about the dysfunction of SC government? I probably stared at him like he was a lunatic for wanting me to think about anything ELSE on top of the mad juggling I was doing at the moment, but I did think about it. And the result was the Power Failure series. I spent a year on it, supervising reporters from across the newsroom in producing a 17-installment opus that explained just how SC government was designed to fail.

And as Cindi notes, the themes developed at that time resonated through my work, and hers, for my entire 15 years on the editorial board.

24 thoughts on “Cindi’s column on Lost Trust, 20 years on

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    So, what can be done now to implement your Power Failure solutions? What’s the bullet point version?

  2. Doug Ross

    I guess we went from Lost Trust to Never Got It Back.

    You mean to tell me that things are BETTER today? Must have been a cesspool back then.

  3. Burl Burlingame

    We had a similar Big Deal series about that long ago called “Broken Trust.”
    One day, in the midst of the furor as it ran, we had a legislator sentenced for cocaine, Bishop Estate trustees resign under fire, and a prominent lawyer discovered having sex in a hotel bathroom with a lady associate (not his wife) who later that evening committed suicide. My wife, who was then Op-Ed editor, blurted out, “The news business doesn’t get better than this!”

  4. Brad

    Kathryn, several years ago — 2003 or 2004, somewhere in there — we did an update of Power Failure. Unfortunately, all my efforts to get the Web folks to keep it up online were unsuccessful.

    Give me a little time, and I’ll come up with a complete bullet list for you. But in the meantime, here are some main items off the top of my head.

    — Create a true Cabinet system in which the elected chief executive is actually responsible and accountable for the executive branch. Right now, no one is.
    — As part of the above, eliminate the Long Ballot of separately electing the executive agency department heads we call constitutional officers.
    — Get the Legislature out of the hair of local governments. Set the governments closest to the people free by enacting the promise of Home Rule.
    — Eliminate the 500 little superfluous governments known as Special Purpose Districts, except in the case of multi-county districts (such as the airport and Riverbanks Zoo governing arrangements), turning the functions of those SPDs to counties and/or municipalities.
    — Institute a rational, priority-setting budget process that does more than talk about “new money” and across-the-board cuts.
    — Comprehensive tax reform. Toss out the whole system and institute a new one that is broad, fair, clear, rational, adequate and stable.
    — Cut the number of school districts to 46, at most, and set up a uniform system for electing school boards (presently, they are elected in some districts, and in others appointed by the legislative delegation) and setting budgets. Remove taxing authority from those school districts that have it and turn it over to county councils.

    There’s a lot more that I’m sure I’m not thinking of at the moment, but it’s been a long day. Remind me, and I’ll come back to it…

  5. Doug Ross

    I agree with every bullet point you listed.

    The fact that we DON’T have any of those in place is why I consider our current state government broken.

    But the only way those bullet points will be enacted will be when all of the current heads of the legislature are replaced: Harrell, Leatherman, Cooper, McConnell, et al.

    How about running that list past both the Haley and Sheheen campaigns and seeing which ones they agree with? That would be a great starting point for finding the right governor of this state (even though he/she would have zero power to make any of the changes you listed).

  6. Cotton Boll Conspiracy


    Every one of your above suggestions is needed, yet not one of them has been enacted two decades later.

    I realize that there may have been other suggestions that were put into place, but what does that say about our state that such common sense solutions that could have helped drag our state into, at a minimum, the 20th Century, still have not been passed and show no promise of being passed or even seriously considered anytime soon?

    If anything, South Carolina is even more legislatively controlled than ever, despite reforms enacted under Campbell, and I don’t see that branch ever willingly giving up any of its power.

  7. bud

    All of Brad’s points sound good. Who could object? Sadly, when implementation time comes we’re stuck with the same ole political cronyism and back-door deals that creates inefficiency and abuse. As I’ve pointed out at least a billion times much of what Brad and Cindi wanted was actually put into place back in 1992. The experiment with the old South Carolina Department of Highways and Public Transportation being split up into 3 separate agencies shows just what a mirage it is to try and create a silk purse out of sows ear via restructuring. But at least it gives something for Brad and Cindi to rant about.

  8. Doug Ross

    Or how about bringing that list to Bobby Harrell and Hugh Leatherman and asking them why they won’t push for those changes. Get them on the record as to why they oppose making South Carolina government more efficient and less corrupt.

    That’s what The State SHOULD have been doing all these years. They dropped the ball (or worse – didn’t really care).

  9. Doug Ross

    Hugh Leatherman: elected to Senate 1981

    Bobby Harrell: elected to House 1992

    Glenn McConnell: elected to Senate 1980

    Jake Knotts : elected to House 1992, Senate 2002

    Phil Leventis: elected to House 1980

    John Land: elected to Senate 1976

    Harvey Peeler: elected to Senate 1980


  10. Kathryn Fenner

    Look, guys–if we just throw up our hands because nothing has been done, chances are nothing will be done. On the other hand, if we say, “hey, new governor, new day” maybe a governor with some political skills and the will to use them for good can quarterback it!

    I would like to know where the candidates stand on these types of issues, far more than where they stand on national issues!

  11. Doug Ross

    We’ve had five governors since the bad old days. None of them made a dent in the corrupt nature of the legislature. Sheheen won’t make a bit of difference because the phony republicans in charge will just ignore him. At least Haley has the record of taking them on. Do we want four years of Mr. Rogers neighborhood?

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    At least Vincent knows how to work and play well with others. Nikki takes them on, just like Sanford, and we know how well that worked out.

  13. bud

    I partially agree with Doug on this one. The entrenched politicians are so set in their ways nothing positive is likely to happen. But the real blame belongs to the voters who appear to be content with the status quo mediocrity we endure in this state.

  14. Brad

    YES. Increasingly, I blame the voters.

    I mean, Alvin Greene is certainly their fault. No doubt about that…

  15. bud

    Yes the voters are ultimately responsible for Greene, but the MSM has to shoulder a portion of the blame for failing to properly vet the candidates. If the Free Times can do why not The State or WIS news?

  16. Brad

    And Doug, we’ve had three governors since then, not five.

    And yes, they’ve all disappointed. Or rather, Mark Sanford has disappointed, since I endorsed him in 02 but did not endorse the others.

    The big missed opportunity for SC was in 94, when Joe Riley lost the Democratic primary by less than one vote per precinct to a man who had spent the last 8 years as Gov Lite campaigning to be governor (while Joe seemingly could not tear himself away from his job as mayor long enough to campaign until the runoff, and then it was too late).

    He’s the only person even to run for governor who held out real promise of making progress in the kinds of reforms we need (we thought Sanford would, but were fooled).

    Nikki would espouse some of the reforms we need, but would not make progress on them. As with Sanford, her energies would go mainly into advancing national ideology at the expense of governing SC.

    Vincent espouses reform, and would make a difference. I say that with much greater confidence than I was able to say it with Sanford. I didn’t know Sanford very well, and was fooled. Vincent I know.

  17. Doug Ross

    You may know Vincent but the voters do not. He’s not starting even with Haley.

    He cannot win without taking away a large chunk of Republicans (10% or more) PLUS he alone has to drive Democratic voters to the polls in high numbers. He has to carry the ticket. Let’s not forget that Haley got more votes than all the Democrats combined in the primary…. so there is little evidence that Sheheen has the “it” factor to energize voters.

    That’s why all this talk about Haley/Sheheen is pure pie-in-the-sky fantasy. We’ll be seeing a 53-47 split in November no matter how many blog posts you write.

  18. Doug Ross

    And when Haley wins can you REALLY blame the voters for anything? After all the Sanford press last year? and all the rumors about Haley this year and your constant drumbeat of negativity that we will hear for the next four months? If after all that, they still want Haley then maybe you should get the hint that the majority of people in South Carolina WANT a governor who doesn’t work with the legislature? one who fights them tooth and nail… that’s what I want.

  19. Cal

    The vote for Green was actually a vote against the “establishment” or the “good ole boys”. As long as you have the Rino’s such as Knots, Leatherman, etc. you are going to have the same old same old.

  20. Nick Nielsen

    Doug, I most certainly hope you don’t get what you want. I’ve only lived here 11 years and I’m tired of this state being a target for far-away laughter.

  21. Kathryn Fenner

    I find it hard to ascribe rationality to the thought that Knotts is a RINO. In what way is he not? The racism part?

  22. bud

    Doug, you’re trying to have it both ways. You suggest the voters are principled if they vote for Haley but these are the same folks who keep voting in the Leathermans, McConnells and Knots’ of the world. I too would like a governor who fights the General Assembly tooth and nail but not for issues related to rejecting federal money. I’d like to see someone a bit more liberal to try and bring this state at least into the 20th century. The 21st century seems a bit too optimistic.

  23. Doug Ross


    The governor is both term-limited AND elected by the entire state. The Leatherman/Harrell/McConnell’s of the world are in for life and elected by a very small percentage of the voters in the state yet they have significantly more power than the governor.

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