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ALLEGED RACIAL SOP HELPED DETERMINE OUTCOME OF HIGH COURT ELECTION

Things don’t just happen in South Carolina politics …

There are always vested interests behind the scenes … pulling strings and applying pressure to ensure that the politics of a particular decision (not the merits) always prevail.

This is (not surprisingly) the case as it relates to the recently concluded legislative election for chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court – in which incumbent Jean Toal defeated challenger Costa Pleicones by a 95-74 vote margin. As we repeated ad nauseam, we had no interest in the outcome of this race.

Both Toal and Pleicones are aging liberals, and their battle was based on a personal grudge … not philosophical disagreement. So while we covered the unfolding drama, we did not engage editorially – opting to stay out of a meaningless contest.

Still, the process by which Toal was chosen – like almost every vote cast in the S.C. General Assembly – was rotten to its core.

For starters, there was a furious effort mounted on Toal’s behalf by S.C. Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell – who is currently staring down a grand jury investigation into corruption charges. Harrell aggressively lobbied lawmakers for Toal – and supporters of both judges agree he “moved votes.”

How did he do that?  The way legislative leaders always move votes – by dangling coveted committee assignments and pork barrel spending items in front of greedy lawmakers.

But there was a much bigger corruption at work in this legislative election – one allegedly orchestrated by Harrell, former Democratic minority leader Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) and GOP “Majority” Leader Bruce Bannister, a “Republican” from Greenville, S.C.

According to multiple lawmakers, lobbyists, judges and attorneys who spoke with FITS in the aftermath of the race, the real scandal involved the only other contested judicial election on the ballot – a family court judge’s position in the state’s thirteenth judicial circuit.

KATHERINE TIFFANY
KATHERINE TIFFANY

This race – between Greenville, S.C. attorney Katherine Tiffany and S.C. Department of Social Services lawyer Tarita Dunbar – was a done deal. Or it was before meddling legislative leaders saw an opportunity to play the race card in an effort to shift black votes in the chief justice’s race.

“Dunbar was used as a carrot to bring the Black Caucus to Toal,” one of our sources explains, noting that “Tiffany was by far the more qualified – not to mention the choice of the Greenville County (legislative) delegation.”

Typically, lawmakers defer to a local delegation on family court judges. That’s not out of respect, mind you, it’s part of a back-scratching arrangement in which legislators (many of whom are attorneys) protect their home turf. In this case that arrangement got turned on its head, though, as Harrell, Cobb-Hunter and Bannister allegedly cooked up a scheme to throw virtually the entire Black Caucus into Toal’s camp.

How’d they do that? By agreeing to appoint Dunbar – who is black – over Tiffany to the Greenville County family court position.

“(Tiffany) was a sacrificial lamb,” one GOP lawmaker told FITS. “And they slaughtered her to appease the race Gods and get their corrupt chief justice elected.”

Whoa …

Another lawmaker who confirmed the corrupt deal told FITS that Dunbar – an attorney with the S.C. Department of Social Services (SCDSS) – had “virtually no courtroom experience.”

Still, she won election by a 96-72 margin – an almost identical vote count to the one in the chief justice’s race. And all but a handful of the black caucus voted for her.

FITS is currently investigating a wide range of other tips related to improper inducements – some taxpayer-funded – in exchange for votes cast by lawmakers in the recent judicial elections. Count on several follow-up stories …

In the meantime, we would reiterate our support for eliminating the inherently corrupt practice of legislative election of judges – and urge lawmakers to move to a system of gubernatorial appointment (with the S.C. Senate providing advice and consent).