Even for the state that produced rabble-rouser Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, the indictment, conviction, and resignation of South Carolina Lt. Gov. Ken Ard on Friday – yes, all in one day – was unprecedented.
On Friday, a state judge sentenced Mr. Ard, who had been lieutenant governor since November 2010, to five years’ probation, a $5,000 fine and 300 hours of community service after he pleaded guilty to a “phantom contribution” scheme intended to “create the false appearance of a groundswell of political support through fictitious or bogus campaign contributions,” in the words of Attorney General Alan Wilson, a fellow Republican.
Ard acknowledged with his plea that he gave $75,000 of his own money to individuals who then gave it back to the campaign. As part of 106 other violations brought by the state's ethics commission, Ard was also found to have used campaign funds to buy an iPad, a wide screen TV, clothes for his wife, and tickets to the Southeastern Conference championship football game.
“It is my fault that the events of the past year have taken place,” Ard said.
Arguably one of the most Republican states in the Union – and notably the first to secede before the Civil War – South Carolina politics have long been home to often colorful, sometimes shady characters who push the bounds of propriety, and occasionally the law. Once a solidly Democratic state, seven of its eight members of the US House of Representatives and Senate are Republicans, as are its governor and both houses of the legislature.
In recent years, Republicans have run into a string of high-profile mishaps and breaches of the law, including the admission by former Gov. Mark Sanford of an affair with an Argentine TV reporter in 2009, the conviction of a Republican state treasurer on cocaine charges in 2007, and the resignation in 2009 of a Republican state school board member who never denied allegations that she wrote online erotica on the side.
In recent years, Republicans haven't had the whole corner on shady politics in South Carolina. In 2009, Democrats nominated a near-penniless guy named Alvin Greene to compete for a senate seat, after he somehow paid his $10,000 fee to enter the race. (Mr. Greene, who was facing pornography charges, lost in the general election.)
"South Carolina strikes me as a state that's always had very strong personalities who tend to be quite outspoken," Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist, told McClatchy newspapers in 2009.
South Carolina, of course, is not demonstrably different than many other states known for corruption, including Illinois and New York. But the characters themselves – consider Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” during an Obama speech in 2009 – certainly tend toward the swashbuckling. Ard was the son of a trucking company owner who launched himself from the Florence, S.C., County Council to statewide office on a slogan of “common sense and fiscal discipline.”
To be sure, historians have long sought to explain the particular vicissitudes of Southern political life, and some of those conclusions, they say, may well extend to the modern-day South. Especially the rural South, with its historic suspicion of outsiders (think Mitt Romney), which has long held the extra-legal as a virtue (think sympathy toward moonshiners.)
“The [Southerner] is something of an individualist who shapes his actions according to local customs and his own notions of how he should behave rather than according to the dictates of law books,” wrote Charles Sydnor, a Southern historian, in “The Southerner and the Laws." “[T]he extralegal ... areas of life in the South convinced many onlookers that here was a land where law was frequently broken and commonly held in contempt.”
While Sydnor was writing about the antebellum South, modern-day historians and political science experts still find evidence of such attitudes in parts of the South.
But after the civil ethics convictions of former Gov. Mark Sanford, the decision to criminally prosecute Ard for misappropriating campaign funds and running a “phantom contribution” scheme could be seen as a step toward reform.
When character witnesses for Ard attempted to paint the crimes as “mistakes” made by a man known to be sloppy with paperwork, Attorney General Wilson said, “We would not have pursued prosecution of a mistake.”
Wilson told The State newspaper that he believes the probationary sentence will serve as a deterrent to other elected officials. But, newspaper reported, "He would not say whether he believes state ethics laws should be strengthened."