Shining the Light: Local Journalist Exposes Corruption

Local journalist Ron Aiken outside the Blythewood offices of the Richland County Recreation Commission. Aiken broke the news last year of Commission corruption. (Photo/Barbara Ball)

Blythewood journalist Ron Aiken outside the Richland County Recreation Commission’s park in Blythewood. Aiken broke the news last year of Commission corruption. (Photo/Barbara Ball)

BLYTHEWOOD (Jan. 5, 2017) – It may not have been entirely the work of a single man that last year brought down the Richland County Recreation Commission Board. But it was the work of one man that tipped over the first domino.

Writing for the news website The Nerve, local journalist Ron Aiken broke the story of sexual harassment, nepotism, the bullying of employees, abuse of power and cash payoffs to Commission board members by the board’s director in exchange for protection. Aiken would later follow up on that lurid tale on his own website, quorumcolumbia.com, as larger news outlets picked up on his trail. Largely as a result of Aiken’s investigation, the Commission director was indicted last October on charges of misconduct in office and retired, and Gov. Nikki Haley removed all but one of the Commission’s seven board members.

Aiken also broke other Richland County stories – about hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of engineering contracts let to someone with no engineering education or experience; about a business partner of a Richland county councilman given over a quarter-million dollars in Hospitality Tax money; about the practice of each council member giving away $165,000 annually any way they please with no oversight or accountability. . . . And the lists goes on.

These and other investigation stories by Aiken have resulted in the FBI, SLED, Attorney General’s office and the S.C. Secretary of State all having open investigations.

Not bad work for a journalist working solo.

“It’s exciting to me to reveal wrongdoing, possible fraud, corruption, lack of transparency where there should be transparency,” Aiken recently told The Voice. “At The Nerve, it was getting a stagnant 3,000 views per month. I was able to get those numbers up to over 100,000 views per month. Starting from nothing, I had the Quorum up to 50,000 views the first month.”

Aiken lives in Blythewood with his wife and three stepchildren. He previously worked for The State newspaper, beginning in 1999, for three or four years as a sports reporter. Not satisfied covering just sports, Aiken got the job as senior editor for the Columbia Business Monthly.

“There I caught the news bug and went to work in Wyoming for a small-town newspaper,” Aiken said. “I learned the techniques of covering all sorts of news – car wrecks, sports, school board meetings, court cases, town councils, etc.”

Aiken eventually worked his way back to Columbia and a gig with Gamecock Central for three years. Not conducive to family life, the away time required by Gamecock Central soon had Aiken looking elsewhere. Local CBS affiliate WLTX reached out to him at the right time, needing someone to cover high school sports. After a year at WLTX, Aiken finally got the chance to work as an investigative journalist at The Nerve, an investigative news website that watchdogs state and local government. Although Aiken was finally doing what he really wanted to do, changes in the direction The Nerve was headed led to some dissatisfaction on Aiken’s part. This led Aiken to create Quorum where he has been busy digging up the dirt.

The sort of work that’s being done at the Quorum would sometimes naturally get on the bad side of some influential people. Aiken takes precautions, but has not had, nor does he expect, any direct threat.

“I believe in the work,” Aiken said. “If I am reporting everything correctly, I don’t worry about it (personal safety). One of the overall purposes of my work is to make everybody’s life better.”

As a one-man show at quorumcolumbia, Aiken does all the research for his articles. Sometimes this involves pouring through stacks of  paperwork, contracts, etc.

“I don’t have a team of lawyers behind me,” Aiken said. “The onus is on me to make sure my information is accurate and air tight. I have to know that before I print anything. I have to have 100 percent confidence of its accuracy.”

And that means vetting his sources carefully – sources he said are surprisingly not hard to find.

“The right people will find you,” Aiken said. “They contact me. I won’t report after a source comes to me unless I know the story is true. I normally won’t report information from a one-time source. I have to develop a relationship with the source and corroborate their information five ways unless they are people I have known for a long time, and there’s already trust built up.”

Catching the attention of the larger daily newspapers has prompted Aiken and The State to consider some sort of working relationship.

“Their publishing process and mine differ,” Aiken said. “I serve my business first, and if I can get exposure from them (The State), all the better. There is a way to do it, but we haven’t nailed it down quite yet.”

Aiken’s work recently earned him second place in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Larry Peterson Memorial Awards for Investigative Journalism. He placed between two major Pulitzer Award winning newspapers, the Atlanta Journal Constitution (first place) and the Charleston Post & Courier (third place).

So what does the future hold for Quorum? In the short term, Aiken said his goal is to maintain the website. Currently, there are enough subscribers to keep it running, but he said the big money hasn’t started rolling in yet. Once the value of the Quorum is fully appreciated, Aiken is hoping the amount of subscribers will increase to the point that more reporters are needed.

Long term, the possibilities are almost endless. Aiken said he is interested in expanding his coverage to Lexington County or State Government. Who knows, maybe Quorum Greenville or Quorum Charleston?

For $10 per month, subscribers can follow Aiken’s investigations at quorumcolumbia.com.