Cindi’s column on our epic struggle for accountable, rational government in SC

“It don’t make no difference how foolish it is, it’s the RIGHT way — and it’s the regular way. And there ain’t no OTHER way, that ever I heard of, and I’ve read all the books that gives any information about these things. They always dig out with a case-knife — and not through dirt, mind you; generly it’s through solid rock. And it takes them weeks and weeks and weeks, and for ever and ever. Why, look at one of them prisoners in the bottom dungeon of the Castle Deef, in the harbor of Marseilles, that dug himself out that way; how long was HE at it, you reckon?”

“I don’t know.”
“Well, guess.”
“I don’t know. A month and a half.”
“THIRTY-SEVEN YEAR — and he come out in China. THAT’S the kind. I wish the bottom of THIS fortress was solid rock.”

For some reason, I thought of that exchange between Tom Sawyer (the first speaker) and Huck Finn when I read Cindi Scoppe’s column Sunday about our long, Sisyphean struggle to get our state to adopt a more rational, accountable form of government.

Actually, it wasn’t a column exactly, but a repurposing of remarks she delivered upon accepting Governing magazine’s Hal Hovey-Peter Harkness Award for public service journalism. Remember, I mentioned this the other day.

Whatever you call the piece, it summarized our TWENTY-YEAR effort to change South Carolina government — one in which we’ve made some progress, although it would be pretty fair to say it’s the kind of progress you’d expect to make, digging your way out of a stone dungeon with a case-knife.

One thing I liked about the piece was that Cindi took the trouble to list the bad craziness that was going on in that summer of 1990, when it all started:

Twenty years ago, I had been out of college less than five years, and covering the S.C. Legislature as a reporter for less than two years, when my colleagues and I realized that we were in the midst of a governmental crisis:

•  A tenth of the Legislature was or soon would be under indictment on federal corruption charges.

•  Among the dozen other officials under investigation was the governor’s closest political ally.

•  A separate FBI investigation was looking into bid-rigging at the Highway Department.

•  The director of that agency had forced underlings to cover up a wreck he had in his state vehicle — and his bosses gave him only a gentle reprimand.

•  That same director had himself refused to fire the Highway Patrol commander for personally intervening to get the top FBI official in the state out of a DUI charge.

•  The larger-than-life president of the state’s flagship university had used public funds to secretly purchase lavish gifts for legislators for years while university trustees looked the other way.

I was the governmental affairs editor at the time, and I’ve told the story of what led us to do Power Failure over and over, but I always have trouble remembering all that stuff that was going on. All of those scandals were on my team’s turf, and we were doing a great job of staying ahead of the competition on all of them that summer (going nuts doing it, but still doing it), when one day Gil Thelen, doing his management-by-walking-around thing, plopped into a chair next to my desk and asked a blue-sky question about what it all meant? Was there a way to explain it all to readers, and give them some hope that the underlying problems could be reached. I said I didn’t know, but I’d think about it.

The result was the Power Failure series. The central insight was that NO ONE was in charge. And the thing that caused me to pull it all together was a series of three op-ed pieces written by Walter Edgar and Blease Graham. After reading that, I could see the direction we would need to take in explaining it to readers — something that eventually took well over 100 stories split into 17 installments in 1991.

Of all the reporters I had working with me on that opus, Cindi was the one who took it most to heart and was most dedicated to the ideas the project set out. Which was a large reason why I brought her up to editorial in 1997 — so we could continue the mission.

Cindi’s boiled-down version of the project’s conclusions:

•  Consolidate agencies, and let the governor control them.

•  Write real ethics laws.

•  Dismantle the special purpose districts, and empower local governments.

•  Release the judiciary from its legislative stranglehold.

•  Adopt a rational budgeting process.

•  And make the government more open to the public.

I enjoyed Cindi’s ending, which to me was reminiscent of the last graf of the introductory piece I wrote for the project. Here’s Cindi’s ending:

There’s a little state down South where we’re experts at putting the “dys” into dysfunctional government, and there’s an editorial writer down there who’s been struggling for practically her entire career to get people to buy into a few simple and obvious reforms. And she’s not gonna stop until they do it.

And here’s mine, from the spring of 1991:

South Carolina is becoming less like its old self. An increasingly wary public is tired of being ripped off. Things that weren’t expected to happen under the old way of doing things — such as judges and senators getting indicted — are happening, because law enforcement agencies won’t play ball anymore.

And neither will the newspapers.

What makes them alike? That braggadocio, that personal statement of “I’m on your case now, and I’m not backing down.” (in my mind, I wanted something that would sound to the readers’ ear like the schwing! of a sword being drawn from a scabbard.) Some of the old hands at The State took exception to that language, and other stuff I wrote at about that time, seeing it as too “arrogant.” Yeah, well — I felt like it was time somebody got out of their comfort zone. I felt like it was going to take a lot to blast the state loose from the deathgrip of the status quo.

And I was right.

16 thoughts on “Cindi’s column on our epic struggle for accountable, rational government in SC

  1. Doug Ross

    What kind of award do they give out for actually making something happen versus talking about what should happen for twenty years?

    Most of us know who the primary culprits are in the state house. The State, for whatever reason, has preferred to focus on 50,000 foot level plans. It has no ability to cause change to occur any more. Its readership is shrinking day by day — and most of the remaining readers are looking for Gamecock stories.

    Put Bobby Harrell and Hugh Leatherman on the front page for a couple weeks straight. Then I’ll believe The State is serious about changing the way South Carolina is governed. A front page story on Innovista would be a good start…

  2. Lynn

    Interesting that you include the Holderman mess in your litany. Since The State worked very hard at NOT covering it. As I recall it was a story broken by your sister paper in the Queen City. You and Cindi don’t get credit for that one. Sorry.

    The more things change the more they remain the same. Sad but true only this time its our Republican Governess, Lt. Gov., Comptroller and Treasurer who have the slime problem.
    Public corruption knows no party.

  3. bud

    Things that weren’t expected to happen under the old way of doing things — such as judges and senators getting indicted — are happening, because law enforcement agencies won’t play ball anymore.

    And neither will the newspapers.
    -Young Brad

    Here we go again. Once Brad and his cohorts start throwing around the “A” word (accountability), you better hide your silver, best china, children and anything else of value.

    Seriously this topic gets old to me. I lived through the horrors of restructuring as egged on by The State’s editorial board. At the time I was all for it. Now I’m older and wiser and know better. First of all the whole “let the governor have control” thing is not the panacea that Brad and Cindi make it out to be. Governor Hodges proved that once and for all by using DPS as his own little fiefdom by appointing the worst agency head in state history after he had been fired by Gov. Beasly. That was a sort of a quid pro-quo to pay back the scoundrel for his endorsement and public support. That was a shameful disgrace made possible by the restructuring legislation.

    So why does this draw my ire so, you may ask? Brad and Cindi are bright folks who have studied this issue and make persuasive points on it’s behalf. That’s true. The problem is we’re dealing with the SC General Assembly and a governor elected by the people of SC. A powerful governor is likely to do more harm than good. And our general assembly is infinitely capable of creating a mangled mess of things if they play the restructuring game again.

    The results of the first go around are crystal clear. We ended up with 3 agencies instead of one when SCDHPT was dismantled. The three agencies needed support operations and the only place to get them was to eliminate valuable front line FTEs that kept us safe. Patrol and highway maintenance were decimated as a result. It took DPS nearly 10 years to finally establish itself as a viable, independent agency. In the meantime employees moved around from place to place including a smelly old trailer park. What a joke.

    In a perfect world restructuring along the lines Brad has outlined would be great. With a good, liberal like governor like Jerry Brown we could end up as a model for state governance that would be the envy of the nation. But frankly I have zero confidence that will happen.

    But what gauls me the most about this whole sordid affair was the absolute indifference The State had in actually following up on the mess it helped create. Oh sure the editorial page dutifully reported that the job was not complete and that it wasn’t what they had lobbied for. But what they utterly failed to do was dig into the realities of the agencies as they ended up. Any cub reporter worth his salt could have walked around for 20 minutes on the campus of DPS and uncovered the travesty that it was during the 90s. Yet that would not fit in with the nice little fantasy picture painted by the editorial board in it’s zeal to restructure the state’s various agencies.

    If we go through this again we need to stay behind the journalists of our state to see to it that THEY are held accountable in the same way they want government to be held accountable. Thankfully we have The Free Times in our midst. Now there is the up and coming in-depth newspaper in the capital city. Hopefully they will keep us informed this time around.

  4. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    I figgered you’d conjure some way to get us to read the national speech where’n you was mentioned, albeit not by name.

  5. Juan Caruso

    Brad, had you resided in SC longer you may have realized that lawyers have ruled the roost here since before the Civil War. They tend to retain and perfect their power (notice no one has mentioned any political party affiliation, which is cosmetic).

    You have resided in SC during two of the extremely rare terms when SC has elected both one US Senator and a Governor who are non-lawyers.

    Finally, since Hellenistic Egypt, structural controls applicable to honest and transparent exercise of power have been spelled out for every type of organization that ever collected revenue and dispensed money. Judicious divisions of conflicting duties, custody and authority (power) are equally applicable to businesses, churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, not-for-profits, law partnerships, and at every level of government.

    I will leave it to you to figure out why voters have been deprived of such basic knowledge nationally.
    SC state government has been mired in the backwaters of basic internal controls for centuries. Periodically the benefactors of such neglect have been caught and convicted.

    Have I said enough?

  6. Brad

    @Doug — You’re all about the trees; I’m looking at the forest. In the summer of 1990, I had my whole staff going nuts chopping down individual trees, just desperately trying to keep up with the pace of it. The insight that I gained from that time was that you can obsess over individual trees all you want — prune them, cull them, chop them down — and you’ll never realize that the whole forest is seriously screwed up, and has been for over 300 years, since John Locke first drew up the system for Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper — since you like to have individuals to blame. (Juan gets that it’s a long-standing problem, but also misses the forest because of his obsession about lawyers.)

    Lynn, I wasn’t looking for “credit” about any of those scandals breaking in 1990; I was just listing (or rather Cindi was) the big scandals that we were dealing with in that period. And we were working our tails off on them. (What you’re remembering is a couple of years before that when there was all the initial reporting, starting just before I arrived at The State, about the gifts and the lavishness of Holderman. What I’m talking about is the end of the story, all the new revelations — some of which our own task force was digging up, but everybody was all over the story by that time. We were spending a lot of energy on that “tree,” just as we were on all the others.)

    With Holderman, which reached its climax in June, as I recall, it seemed like a “big tree” story. A discrete incident, something unique, something arising from his unusual personality.

    Then, a tenth of the Legislature was indicted in Lost Trust. Then all those other bullets started popping, really fast.

    The conclusion I eventually reached was that we had a systemic problem.

    My good friend John Monk (then at the Observer) wrote about Holderman qua Holderman — as a story about that guy, and the other guys who let him get away with it. In the summer of 1990, that’s the way we were writing about it too, — this outrage, that misfeasance. In Power Failure, a year later, we wrote about the fact that we had a public higher education system that was likely to produce problems such as Holderman — these individual fiefdoms, almost totally independent of state control, answerable only to their rather insular, and sometimes incestuous, trustee boards.

    Which made that an excellent microcosm of the overall problem in state government.

  7. Brad

    Speaking of that — Holderman and the trustee system as illustrative of the overall problem — I just looked back at that initial, kickoff Power Failure piece that I wrote in 91, and was reminded that I used him as my very first example in a litany of recent illustrations of the consequences of fragmented, unaccountable government:

    Power in this state is scattered into a thousand invisible corners, connected only by the personal relationships that bind bureaucrats, politicians and lobbyists. So you have no way to control it, no way to hold it accountable.
    Consider the results:
    — An out-of-control university president spends money like water, and for more than a decade takes advantage of a political culture that allows and encourages officials to conceal their actions. When the public finds out, the government system that pays him does nothing. The crisis isn’t resolved until James Holderman resolves it by resigning.
    — A notorious lobbyist, known for cocaine and poker games, gets himself off the hook with federal authorities by persuading at least a dozen state legislators to take cash for their votes. The feds say nobody who was offered FBI money by lobbyist Ron Cobb turned it down. And even after being convicted of taking bribes, some still claim they did nothing wrong.
    — The head of the Highway Patrol personally intervenes when the top FBI man in the state is stopped on suspicion of drunken driving. When the incident comes to light, the federal government deals swiftly with its agent, recalling him to Washington. By contrast, nothing happens to patrol chief J.H. “Red” Lanier, though the governor cries for his head. Finally, like Holderman, Lanier gets fed up with the public hullabaloo and quits.
    — Six of the seven large, mainframe computers state agencies bought between 1986 and 1990 came from a single company that was well-connected: to lobbyist Cobb; to the late Sen. Jack Lindsay, one of the state’s most powerful and controversial lawmakers; and to lobbyist Tom Collins, who is expected to plead guilty to a drug charge.
    — In 1988, two legislators, meeting in secret, tucked an $8.6 million tax break for 21 wealthy people into the budget. The change was worth $400,000 for each of them. The FBI is investigating.

    Holderman was a problem. You know what was a bigger problem? The fact that nobody elected by the people of this state could do ANYTHING about getting rid of him. Which is just insane. Which was, in great part, what Power Failure was about.

  8. Brad

    As to bud’s remarks — I’m never going to win bud over on restructuring, because he doesn’t like what it did to the agency he worked for.

    But I do want to answer this statement, which I hear a lot from those who resist reform: “A powerful governor is likely to do more harm than good.”

    Here’s my answer to that: A WEAK governor is no use to God or man. Only a person elected by all of the people, constitutionally empowered as chief executive, has ANY chance of overcoming the natural inertia of the Legislative State.

    Yeah, you’d sure better elect a good one. But if you don’t empower that position, then forget about change of any kind, for good or bad.

    Me, I’d rather create a system in which change is possible, and then work to elect the best possible governors to make sure the change is for the better. The alternative is for South Carolina to continue to stew in its problems.

    You like the status quo? Keep the governor weak. Want to take a chance on making our situation in SC better? Give the governor some power. And then elect a good governor.

  9. bud

    I’m ok with restructuring in principal. The problem is the general assembly simply is incapable of accomplishing it without really creating a huge amount of inefficiency in the process. What’s worse an unaccountable, yet efficient government that accomplishes great tasks in spite of unfettered corruption. Or, is it better to have a ridiculously inefficient government that’s hamstrung with red tape at every turn but is perhaps a bit less corrupt? That seems to be the choice we made in 1991. Do we really want to go down that path again?

    Let’s do this. Why don’t we do an agency or 2 at a time and do those right? Otherwise we risk engendering the same inefficiencies that serve the people just as poorly as agencies mired in corruption.

  10. Mark Stewart

    I’m not with Bud on this; roll all the agencies up into the executive branch. Then whenever someone has a complaint about their own pet peeve, they can take it out on the Governor at the polls. That method does tend to keep the top focused on pushing down good governence on the agencies and holding them accountable. Corruption, on the other hand, thrives when accountability is awol.

    Change isn’t so hard to initiate; it’s the fear of it that keeps people quaking in their boots and getting all “conservative” – which in this case just means being resistant for the comfort of it.

  11. martin

    Mark, that sounds good, but for those of us who know how some agencies have deteriorated under the cabinet system know better.

    Mark Sanford was teflon, except about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I have seen The State and Post and Courier get to a certain point in a scandal involving a cabinet agency or an agency in the office of the governor and stop dead in their tracks when they figured out the trail led to Sanford.

    With The State, it had to be fear of revealing the cabinet system as the failure it is and being forced to admit its all consuming agenda just doesn’t work in a state that elects the governors we do. The Post and Courier was blindly loyal to Sanford.

    There is less accountability now than there was in 1992 – based on what the media is willing to cover. The only agency The State cares about is DHEC and the minute it becomes a cabinet agency, we won’t hear another word about it, do matter what it does or doesn’t do.

  12. Mark Stewart

    Martin, I would make the counter-argument; South Carolina generally chooses the candidates that it does because the voters don’t believe that any office has much power and so voter’s don’t value the accountability factor very highly when they select from among the candidates.

    But change that up and structure a system where the elected officials have power and are accountable, and we might just see a different sort of voting pattern emerge.

    Hey, it works in most of the other states…

  13. Brad

    I’ve never had any doubt: Make the governor the actual head of the executive branch (as any reasonable analysis would insist you do), and better candidates will run for the office.

    Now, with few exceptions, you tend to get climbers who simply want the job title on their resumes, because it LOOKS like more than it is, to people who don’t understand.

  14. Nick Nielsen

    Being Governor in South Carolina is like being King or Queen of England.
    – People listen when you speak, but no longer have to do what you say;
    – You are nominally in charge, but your actual power to govern is almost nil; and,
    – There’s bugger-all you can do about it.

  15. bud

    I’ve never had any doubt: Make the governor the actual head of the executive branch (as any reasonable analysis would insist you do), and better candidates will run for the office.
    – Brad

    Look in and you’ll find this quote by the word

    ( often lowercase ) Also, Pol·ly·an·na·ish. unreasonably or illogically optimistic: some pollyanna notions about world peace.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *