Lost Trust Still Stings
BY BRETT BURSEY
Federal Judge Falcon Hawkins picked the scab off a long-festering wound by dismissing charges against five former legislators convicted in the vote-buying sting known as Lost Trust. The move confirms public fears that the feds weren't playing off the top of the deck.
The judge's 86-page ruling focused mostly on the prosecutorial misconduct of U.S. Attorney Bart Daniel, who tried the case seven years ago.
Over the years, Hawkins has grown angry over repeated disclosures that the U.S. Attorney's Office lied about having turned over all relevant documents.
The Motion to Dismiss that Hawkins acted on was filed two years ago by Joel Collins, attorney for former Rep. Luther Taylor (D-Richland). Taylor was convicted of selling his vote on legalizing gambling to lobbyist Ron Cobb.
Hawkins found that Daniel withheld tapes and other testimony that would have shown Cobb knew Taylor was already sponsoring betting legislation before he offered Taylor money.
Hawkins found that the information Daniel withheld damaged Taylor's defense -- that he couldn't sell a vote he had already cast -- and that the money was a legal, if sleazy, contribution for a job well done.
The judge concluded that Daniel knowingly let his star witness lie under oath. When Cobb testified that he had never bribed Sen. John Lindsey, he had in fact admitted to federal investigators that he had recently given Lindsey a $50,000 bribe to slip a retroactive capital gains break into the budget for some Greenville businessmen.
Cobb, while cooperating with the feds to keep from going to prison on drug charges, set the ground rules of Daniel's investigation.
"Cobb maneuvered himself into the driver's seat," Hawkins said in his opinion. Why Daniel let Cobb drive is still an unanswered question.
The documents released since the original trials confirm that the feds knew about Dick Greer's involvement in the capital gains bribes. Greer was Gov. Carroll Campbell's best friend, campaign treasurer and fund-raiser, as well as the director of the State Development Board.
The money Cobb used to grease the tax break came from some of the governor's biggest supporters. Not surprisingly, the same supporters were the beneficiaries of the multimillion dollar tax hustle.
Cobb didn't want to go down the capital gains trail, and Daniel covered up for him by letting him lie on the stand and by withholding evidence. Daniel let Greer plead guilty to cocaine possession, and closed the investigation on the capital gains swindle that could have led to Campbell.
This is the same Bart Daniel that Gov. David Beasley recently hired to investigate the governor's own role in the grants scandal at the Department of Public Safety.
It's a good bet that Beasley knew of Daniel's willingness to throw himself on the handgrenades rolling toward sitting Republican governors. Daniel's cover-up began to unravel when President Bill Clinton appointed Pete Strom to take over the U.S. Attorney's Office in Columbia.
When Strom saw all the maggots under the rocks in the Lost Trust appeals he had inherited, he called the Justice Department in Washington and requested that they take over the case.
That's when the trickle of information Daniel had withheld turned into the torrent that ultimately led to Hawkins' ruling.
The new team of investigators found boxes of files and tapes that Daniel had told the judge didn't exist. The new evidence supported Taylor's claims that Daniel had his thumb on the scales of justice from the beginning.
Attorney General Charlie Condon, who seems willing to sue anyone for anything to get his name in the papers, has passed on the Daniel investigation.
The attorney general is politically and personally tied to Daniel (Daniel appeared on Condon's campaign commercials), and has asked the state Supreme Court to appoint an independent investigator.
Condon can smell the rotting bodies in the closet, and wants to put some distance between himself and his former friend.
It is unlikely that Hawkins' ruling will be appealed, so is this finally the end of the Lost Trust saga?
Let's hope not. The trust that was lost goes beyond the now unresolved question of selling votes. It includes selling out our judicial system for political reasons.
At this point, it's not clear who can restore our lost trust.