I missed Cindi Scoppe’s column over the weekend reminiscing about Lost Trust (which broke 20 years ago Sunday) until a reader mentioned Cindi’s “shout-out” to me:
If anything happened in the next year that wasn’t related to the sting, I can’t remember it. While I dissected the ethics proposals, my editor Brad Warthen led the newsroom on a yearlong examination of how the Legislative State produced not only corruption but a hapless government that answered to no one — laying the groundwork for one of the primary focuses of our later work on this editorial board.
Pushed along by Lost Trust, Gov. Carroll Campbell and Brad’s “Power Failure” series, the Legislature voted two years later to hand a third of the government over to the governor. Lawmakers unleashed the powerful State Grand Jury to investigate political corruption cases. They passed a reporter shield law after a judge ordered me and three other reporters held in federal custody for two days for refusing to testify in a corruption trial.
It was interesting to read Cindi’s memory of that from her perspective. I had forgotten a lot of the intrigue that my reporters — particularly Cindi — had to go through to find out what was going on. But then, I was mostly experiencing it second-hand, being the desk man that I was. Cindi and the others would come in with this stuff they had garnered in encounters reminiscent of Bob Woodward’s meetings with Deep Throat in the parking garage, and we’d figure out which outrageous items were worth pursuing to try to confirm immediately and which ones to set aside. And then, how in the world to nail down the relevant ones.
For me, at the epicenter of The State‘s coverage, it was a time for keeping a couple of dozen plates spinning, and was a daily challenge to an editor managing finite resources in the midst of stories that seemed to have an infinite number of branches, each one of which was a hot story in itself.
Mind you, Lost Trust wasn’t the only government scandal breaking that summer. We had the final act of the Jim Holderman collapse, a purchasing scandal involving a major agency (I don’t even remember which one now), the head of the Highway Patrol directly personally interfering with the DUI of the head of the local FBI office, and those are just the things that I remember sitting here. There was more. Fortunately, the governmental affairs staff in those days amounted to something (I may have been slightly down from my 1988 high of 10 reporters, but not by much), but there’s only so much that even that many people can do when so much is popping at the same time — and during the time of year when things are usually quiet.
And Lost Trust itself, alone, without those other scandals, would have totally consumed us days, nights and weekends. A full 10 percent of the Legislature indicted? Heady stuff.
We were well out ahead of the competition most days, and I felt proud of my team — Cindi and the others. Then the executive editor, who was new in the job (Gil Thelen), one busy day stopped by my desk to say it was all very well and good that we were staying ahead of the story and beating everybody on it, but what about the future? What, out of all this mess, might we be able to offer readers to give them the sense that something could be done about the dysfunction of SC government? I probably stared at him like he was a lunatic for wanting me to think about anything ELSE on top of the mad juggling I was doing at the moment, but I did think about it. And the result was the Power Failure series. I spent a year on it, supervising reporters from across the newsroom in producing a 17-installment opus that explained just how SC government was designed to fail.
And as Cindi notes, the themes developed at that time resonated through my work, and hers, for my entire 15 years on the editorial board.