By Lachlan McIntosh|| The indictment and resignation of S.C. Lt. Governor Ken Ard is among the Palmetto State’s biggest political scandals — one in a series of recent humiliations involving Republican elected officials. Others include former Gov. Mark Sanford’s hypocritical and improper use of state funds to carry on an affair, the jailing of former Treasurer Thomas Ravenel on cocaine charges and the arrest of state Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Sharpe for taking bribes from cockfighters.
One-party rule, no matter which party is doing the ruling, is fraught with scandals and extremism. But the Ken Ard affair will be remembered as the first S.C. scandal in modern times that was not broken by the mainstream media. It didn’t have to be that way.
As the general consultant for Ashley Cooper, Ard’s Democratic opponent in the 2010 general election, I knew Ard was a walking scandal from day one. He claimed to be a businessman but never ran a business. He said he went to Wofford College but actually dropped out of Francis Marion University after one semester. He vowed he never voted for tax increases as a member of Florence County Council but actually did several times. This is a guy who didn’t even register to vote until he was 40 year old.
Folks who knew Ard for years in the state’s Pee Dee section that he is a nice fellow, although, as one long-time acquaintance of his pointed out, Ard had a tough time understanding the difference between telling lies and telling the truth. But members of the mainstream media didn’t seem to care initially. They basically ignored information regarding Ard’s character and let him have a free ride. On election night, even though Cooper had worked harder and out spent his opponent by a significant margin, Ard was a 10-point winner.
South Carolina virtually has a one-party system now, along with what seems to be an uninspired press corps. A month after the election, I retreated to a log cabin in the DuPont Forest near Cedar Mountain, N.C. The winter was a particular snowy one in the forest, and as a Lowcountry boy born and raised, I was enjoying the change of scene. As a practicing liberal, I drove a Volvo up there, which fortunately for me was all-wheel drive. So I was set.
By late January it dawned on me that a close look at Ard’s final campaign disclosure report, which was released about a week before, was in order.
What it said was stunning. State law is clear that a candidate must spend campaign funds only on campaign-related activities. But soon after his Nov. 2 election victory, the records show, Ard was spending lots of campaign money on personal things, including a family vacation to Atlanta and a trip to Washington, D.C. He also bought merchandise from Target and Best Buy, and used a campaign debit card to pay his gasoline bills.
It was open and shut — surely front-page news. But the information I sent to most of the mainstream media got virtually no response, although one reporter did say he’d ask the new lieutenant governor about it the next time he saw him.
But reporter Corey Hutchins of the Columbia Free Times, an alternative weekly newspaper, did listen. The Free Times doesn’t have a large circulation, but Corey was soon on the case. A few days later he called and said the state ethics commission agreed the expenditures could be improper. He then called Ken Ard about the questionable expenditures, and the Lieutenant Governor dropped a bombshell.
“I’ve got a vast amount of my personal wealth tied up in this campaign, and I’m just trying to recoup as much of that as I can,” Ard said. He later denied this, but didn’t know Hutchins had him on tape.
The blog FITS News covered the story immediately after it broke in the Free Times, and eventually the mainstream media reported the truth about Ken Ard. He was done. Sixteen months after the general election and at the conclusion of a long grand-jury investigation where it was discovered that Ken Ard had also funneled cash to friends in return for campaign contributions. Ard was removed from office and is now doing community service while serving five years on probation.
Ard was caught thanks to a reporter for a small weekly alternative newspaper. Things have changed in South Carolina. If the traditional media does not do their job, the new media will. So, corrupt politicians take note: The rules have changed.
Lachlan McIntosh is a political consultant based in Charleston. He is a former executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party and former aide to Gov. Jim Hodges. This column – reprinted with permission – originally appeared in The Charleston Mercury.