TAPES REPORTEDLY TIE RONNIE CROMER, STEVE BENJAMIN TO GAMBLING RING
Not long after this website picked up reporter Corey Hutchins’ piece on South Carolina’s shady video poker underworld, our tip line, phone lines and email started lighting up.
“This (story) is much bigger than Lexington County,” one state law enforcement source told us.
This source proceeded to outline how Danny Frazier – the local city councilman and Lexington County Sheriff’s Department employee at the heart of the brewing scandal – was connected to a much broader effort aimed at operating illegal video poker machines in numerous locations under the protection of local law enforcement, magistrates and even agents of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
Damn … right?
Much of this network’s illegal activities were detailed by Frazier in three hours – that’s right, three hours – of audio files which were recorded surreptitiously by an as-yet-unidentified individual. These audio tapes – copies of which have reportedly been provided to the U.S. Department of Justice – include Frazier making references to numerous state and local politicians who are allegedly mixed up in the gambling operation.
Among them? S.C. Senator Jakie Knotts, S.C. Senator Ronnie Cromer and Columbia, S.C. Mayor Steve Benjamin. Numerous other local officials at the municipal and county level in Lexington County are also said to be involved.
“This is no secret,” one local political consultant told us. “They’ve been doing this for years. Everybody knows what they’re doing.”
More somberly, we received tips from some of our readers in Lexington County who advised us to use caution in pursuing the story given the extremely dangerous enemies that we would make in the process.
“You have got to be very careful,” one woman familiar with the Lexington network wrote to our founding editor. “Please stay safe.”
In keeping with the pervasive fear factor associated with this story, one of our sources refused to provide us with a name that we were seeking in relation to our investigation because – in their words – “they would literally kill him.”
Adding another layer of intrigue to the mix? Hutchins – the reporter who initially broke the story for The (Columbia, S.C.) Free Times - is said to have destroyed the audio evidence that his paper was provided.
Needless to say, we sought out a comment on that point from the paper – which has famously saved important audio recordings in the past.
“The Aug. 1 Free Times story ‘Stacking the Deck‘ contains numerous quotes obtained from recordings provided to Free Times; the quotes used in the story represent what we felt to be the most compelling material on the recordings,” said Dan Cook, editor of the paper, in a statement provided to FITS. “As noted in the story, the same recordings were also provided by a third party to law enforcement. Beyond what we have quoted in ‘Stacking the Deck,’ we will not be commenting on the contents of the recordings.”
Our investigation into this story began in earnest when several sources who claim to have heard the tapes began revealing specific details of their contents.
Specifically, they claim that at one point during the recording Frazier calls S.C. Sen. Ronnie Cromer on his cell phone in an effort to prove his claim he has friends in the S.C. State Senate who are “in his debt” and looking out for his interests.
Reached for comment, Cromer acknowledged receiving at least one phone call from Frazier in the not-too-distant past regarding video poker.
“He did call me about that issue and what I told him was that it wasn’t coming up this year,” Cromer told FITS. ”I told him ‘I’ll do anything I can to help you,’ but I don’t go out on a limb and promise anything I’m not 100 percent sure on.”
Cromer says any suggestion that he was offering Frazier “cover” for his alleged gambling operation was false – or at least a “miscommunication.”
Benjamin did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on his alleged connection to Frazier’s operations.
Video poker machines were outlawed in 2000 when the S.C. Supreme Court blocked a referendum that would have given Palmetto State residents the right to vote on their legality. We disagree with that decision (voters should have been allowed to make that call), and on top of that we have been consistent in supporting the expansion of gaming in South Carolina.
Our reason? State government – which runs the so-called “education” lottery – shouldn’t have a monopoly on this industry. Hell, it shouldn’t even be participating in this industry. Doing so is not only hypocritical, but it is depriving our state of tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment.
Of course while video poker is illegal, it’s clear that the enforcement of this statute is – at best – lax and selective. That leads to operations like this alleged poker ring – enterprises which are receiving an unfair competitive advantage due to their political connections.