Den of Thieves

Exactly 40 years ago this summer, a brash, 36-year-old reformer running for governor called the S.C. state Senate “a den of thieves.” A majority of Democratic voters agreed with him, and Charles D. “Pug” Ravenel won the primary to become the Democratic Party’s nominee.

But the good old boys had their revenge. The State Supreme Court, all of whom had been appointed by the Legislature, ruled that Ravenel did not meet the state residency requirement and he was thrown off the ballot. Thus began the sad tale of the demise of Pug Ravenel, but that is another story for another time.

The point is, that here we are 40 years later and the state Senate just killed a so-called ethics reform bill that at least in theory did something – even if just a little something – about the terrible corruption at the Statehouse.

It would take a much longer piece to chronicle all the failings, deficiencies and downright corruption that led to the killing of the ethics bill, but a few key points are unequivocal:

Nothing was passed. No bill of any kind was passed – nothing, nada, zero. One can argue over weak bills, ineffective bills, or short-sighted bills – the point is that we got no bill at all.

Both parties killed it. This was not a partisan issue. There were a few legislators in both parties who really did want real, tough ethics reform but the bill was killed because most of the politicians of both parties wanted it to go away.

Legislators being on the take will continue unabated. There are lots of ways to dress this up with “consulting fees” or “legal retainers” or such, but huge proportions of the Legislature take corrupt money in return for special treatment and favors. It is so pervasive because, under current ethics law, they can keep it secret. And it will now continue to be secret.

Ethics reform has a bleak future. This is an election year and legislators know that it sounds good to say “we passed ethics reform,” even if the bill was weak and essentially meaningless. They couldn’t even get this done. If ethics reform didn’t pass in an election year, it’s unlikely to pass next year when the legislators are two years distant from an election.

It will only get worse. Right now House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Attorney General Alan Wilson are locked in a political/ethics/legal death grip that is so enormous that it is going to politically kill one or the other. If even a modest ethics reform can’t pass in this environment, it likely never will. Legislators know this and many feel like their hunting license for corrupt deals has been renewed.

The language of “den of thieves” is pretty incendiary. Is it really that bad?

Let me offer this quote from an honest, diligent legislator who recently left after several terms in the House: “It is all so corrupt and all about personal deals that now there is virtually no chance of the right things getting done on any important issues. If there were a 10 percent chance of success, I’d stay and fight, but it’s hopeless.”

The last thing I want to do is to come across as some pious, self-righteous jerk about this. But ethics is key, it is basic, it is the very basis of democracy. Today we have a system where things have become so corrupt that the whole system is mired down and becoming increasingly dysfunctional. We are all as a state suffering from this corruption.

The “den of thieves” language comes from Matthew in the Bible, when Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem and found it full of money changers and other such lowly types (AKA lobbyists and corrupt deal-makers). He said, “My Temple is called a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”

He then overturned the tables and physically drove out the money changers.

The incident was known as “the cleansing of the temple” and best I know it is the only recorded incident of Jesus ever doing anything violent. The temple was the most holy place and for money changers to be there was so offensive that it provoked him to physical remonstrance.

I think this is a fitting metaphor for our state Capitol. Capitol buildings are sometimes called the “temples of democracy” and though some may think me hopelessly naïve, I still think of these buildings with a certain sense of reverence for what they represent – even if they have been defiled by the money changers and such.

Was every person in Jesus’ temple a money changer? No. Is every member of the S.C. Legislature corrupt? Of course not.

But at this point, those are just the exceptions that prove the rule. Our state Capitol has become a den of thieves.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and is President of the S.C. New Democrats (, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real [email protected]

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