TO DISCOVER: 10 things learned from the series | Local

Staff and partners of La Poste and Courrier Uncovered

Over the past year, The Post and Courier and 17 other South Carolina news outlets have teamed up to sift through more than 53,600 emails, invoices, credit card statements and other public documents. We have filed over 50 Freedom of Information Act requests. We interviewed more than 560 public officials, fraud experts, academics and whistleblowers.

It was an unprecedented collaboration to shed light on corruption, waste and questionable conduct.

1. We have learned that there is a deep thirst for truth and good governance.

Whether they spoke publicly or requested anonymity, some of our best sources were members of government who were fed up with self-operation, nepotism and conflicts of interest within them. They are public servants who have felt a deep sense of injustice. They told us they wanted public servants to behave fairly and spend their tax dollars wisely. Some risked retaliation for speaking out about those in power.

People also read …

At the same time, people outside of government pushed us to take a deep look at things that had been overlooked or unexplored. Call them horseflies or citizen watch dogs, they put themselves in the spotlight to identify wrongdoing. A few might be irritating, but that’s understandable, given the forces against change. They all shared some commonalities: a sense of justice and a desire to make their towns and villages better places to live and work. They can be seen as antidotes to apathy and cynicism.

“This is what it is about,” said Angel Brabham, a citizen watchdog in Allendale. “Be careful and be persistent.”

2. We have seen that corruption permeates South Carolina in ways big and small.

In the past year alone, 26 public officials have been charged with criminal offenses, ranging from embezzlement to rape, according to our Uncovered Corruption Tracker.

No corner of the state has been spared – from the small town of Scranton near Florence, where an employee was accused of using the town’s credit card to purchase $ 200,000 in clothing, food and utilities public – in Edgefield, where the head of a public hospital was accused of siphoning off $ 5,500 for his own needs.

And that tally does not include the wide range of questionable conduct exposed by Project Uncovered.

Among our findings: Public service commissioners gorged themselves on wine tastings, ziplined down ziplines, and relaxed in four-star retreats – all on their taxpayers’ tabs. We documented how a school principal lived rent-free in taxpayer-funded housing intended for recruiting teachers. And we identified dozens of officials who had collectively fined nearly $ 3 million for breaking the state’s toothless ethics law.

DISCOVER: Shedding light on the government’s questionable conduct

“What we’ve seen happen in South Carolina is typical when you don’t have a strong culture of ethical behavior,” said Kendra Stewart, professor of political science at the College of Charleston.

3. We have learned that fewer people look at our public officials.

Many South Carolina newspapers have shrunk or shut down altogether, creating information deserts and shadow newspapers that deprive communities of vital surveillance. Eight South Carolina newspapers closed their doors in 2020 alone. Gone are the obituaries, reporters at council meetings, sports reports and longtime columnists – the stickers that cement a place’s identity.

“You don’t really realize what you had until he’s gone, and it’s a sad situation,” said Keith Davenport, longtime reader of The Observer at Ware Shoals, which has shut down its operations. doors in 2020.

4. We have found that this decline in surveillance is both a national and a local problem.

As in South Carolina, many newspapers across the country have also suffered, especially those owned by leveraged chains and hedge funds maximizing their profits. Smaller teams often can’t do the kind of deep digging necessary to expose wrongdoing.

At the same time, the Justice Department and the FBI have halved the number of public corruption investigations since 1998, a shift in crime-fighting priorities that has slipped under the national radar.

Fewer national and local watchdogs mean fewer stop signs for thieves.

5. We have learned that without constant and clear monitoring the lines between good and evil blur.

Many scammers start small, cutting corners here and there. Then, when they don’t get caught, some move on to greater mischief. In the process, many are starting to justify their actions. With straight faces, they’ll tell you they haven’t done anything wrong.

But powerful deterrents can bypass this cycle of fraud and self-deception by creating clearer lines of ethical behavior and higher risks when crossing them.

“The thing to remember is that ethical guidelines are also there for honest people,” said Larry Martin, a former Pickens State senator who had long pushed for stronger ethical laws. “If you know what’s right, you’re going to stay in your lane.”

6. We have seen that without careful scrutiny, corruption can spread like cancer.

Look no further than rural Hampton County, a swampy corner of South Carolina far from major media markets. Over the generations, the powerful Murdaugh family ruled without scrutiny, controlling the office of the chief prosecutor and running a high-powered civil law firm. Their dynasty collapsed over the summer amid a pair of high-profile murders and startling allegations of embezzlement and influence peddling by Alex Murdaugh, a wealthy lawyer and part-time prosecutor who would have stolen millions.

“The rule of law is important in our society, and when something like this happens people think, ‘If this person does it, so can I,” said Gibbs Knotts, Dean of the Faculty of Law. humanities and social sciences from the College of Charleston. “Something like this can really cut the fabric of our society. It’s scary, and it’s something we need to be vigilant about.

7. We have learned that our heads of state can do more to stop corruption and waste, but don’t do it.

Take the example of the State Ethics Commission. We have documented how the agency does not have the staff or the authority to comb through the tens of thousands of financial files it receives each year.

It also makes it easy to get rid of offenders after mixed investigations. It does not effectively enforce the fines it imposes. This makes it difficult for the public to see which leaders broke ethics laws.

“What we need is funding for the Ethics Commission so that it can do its job and do it well,” said Lynn Teague, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of South Carolina. “They need to thoroughly investigate complex cases and not settle them for a reduced burden. Because there must be consequences when someone abuses public trust.

8. We found that some agencies used the state’s freedom of information law as a means of avoiding or delaying the review.

Some public officials are models of transparency. They answer questions thoroughly and respond immediately to requests for documents, often offering them free of charge.

Others dodge or ignore questions altogether. Some require that questions be submitted in Freedom of Information Act requests. Then they use the law to delay the release of information until the last day of the 30-day statutory deadline. They can also keep documents hostage unless you pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees.

Delays and fees can smash a small newspaper’s budget or deter a citizen watchdog from seeking out this information, adding even more obscurity to how our public servants spend their tax dollars.

“It’s just another barrier for the public to learn what our government is doing,” said Jay Bender, lawyer for the SC Press Association and longtime expert in open case law. “I think a lot of these public bodies are ashamed of the poor quality of their service to the public, and they try to hide as much as possible to keep it from coming out.”

9. We have learned that collaboration can be more important than competition.

There is an African proverb: if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. Being the first with stories has long been the northern star of journalism. But the push for speed can also lead to half-baked and shallow stories, ones that are more about clicks and pageviews than public service. Investigative reporting takes time, experience and local knowledge.

Putting aside this idea of ​​competition seemed odd at first, but Project Uncovered’s 17 news agencies have investigated and denounced more misconduct than any newspaper could have. In total, the collaboration received more than 90 serious tips. Some have checked. Others not so much. But statewide efforts to investigate the advice sent a strong message to officials: someone is watching.

The Uncovered collaboration includes these news organizations:

The Chester News & Reporter, The (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat, The (Greenwood) Index-Journal, Aiken Standard, The Kingstree News, The Newberry Observer, Lancaster News, The Easley Sentinel-Progress, The Independent Voice of Blythewood and Fairfield, Pickens County Courier, Latino Newspaper, The Sumter Item, The Laurens County Advertiser, The Charleston Chronicle, The Gaffney Ledger, The Pageland Progressive Journal, and The Post and Courier.

Glenn Smith contributed to this report from Charleston. Joseph Cranney contributed from Columbia.