It has been a quarter-century since the biggest corruption case in state history — Operation Lost Trust — rocked South Carolina’s political world. By the time it was over, 17 legislators, 7 lobbyists, and 3 others had been convicted in a massive bribery sting by the FBI.
A new book Operation Lost Trust and the Ethics Reform Movement that goes on sale Wednesday is believed by its author to be the first comprehensive look at the investigation and nearly ten years of ensuing court cases. That author is John Crangle — a lobbyist and state director of the government watchdog group Common Cause. Crangle was also a lobbyist warning about legislative corruption when the FBI began its anti-corruption probe in 1988.
The sting used a lobbyist-turned-informant Ron Cobb to pretend he was pushing for a bill that would legalize dog- and horse-race gambling. FBI agents then recorded Cobb paying bribes to legislators in exchange for their support of the phony bill. In all, 27 people were convicted for their role in the operation, although the final cases would not be decided until 1998.
Crangle said the 600-page book he self-published is about “Lost Trust” but also shows the same temptations that exist at the Capitol today. “I think legislators who want to understand the situation at the present time can look at the book and find out why we have the kinds of problems we still have in South Carolina.”
The book not only focuses on the criminal cases of its defendants, but also the resulting ethics debate that followed, which led to a 1992 law that banned unlimited campaign contributions and also set limits on what lobbyists could provide lawmakers. Crangle was among a key group of legislators and watchdogs who helped craft the law.
“It teaches a number of lessons,” Crangle told South Carolina Radio Network. “One is how easy it is for public officials to become corrupt. Particularly when you have an environment in which the ethics laws are extremely weak… and you have no enforcement.”
Crangle wrote the book as a encyclopedia of the scandal, using interviews from prosecutors, lawmakers, and defense attorneys involved at the time. The book also relies on news reports and other contemporary documents.
However, he said he did not speak to any of the individuals convicted or acquitted for their alleged roles in the scheme. “I did not feel I could confidently rely upon what those people said,” he indicated. “I felt more confidence in what their attorneys said because attorneys are professionally obligated to be ethical.”
Operation Lost Trust goes on sale Wednesday. Crangle will hold a launch discussion and book signing at the Uptown on Main gift store in Columbia from 4-7 p.m. He will be joined by State Sen. John Courson, former State Sen. Tommy Moore, and former State Rep. Candy Waites. All three were also involved in the 1992 ethics law’s passage.
Crangle plans another Saturday stop at Broad River Books in Camden from 2-4 p.m, Former House Speaker Bob Sheheen will also be in attendance.
The book itself will only be offered at limited stores across the state, although you can purchase it online through Uptown.