Charlie Condon is a driven man, but just where is he going?
BY BRETT BURSEY
POINT has been watching Charlie Condon for some time. It's hard not to; he seems to be on television every time you turn around. But beyond the sound bites, the public knows very little about this man. And that's exactly how he wants it.
Two years ago, POINT sent Condon's office a request for an interview. The response: "This office always cooperates with members of the legitimate media. The attorney general is declining your request... We know that the tiresomely liberal staff of POINT disagrees with him on many issues, such as maintaining the noble tradition of The Citadel and ensuring the rights of infants not to be born addicted to crack cocaine. POINT's monthly yowling notwithstanding, the attorney general is doing the job the people of South Carolina elected him to do. And he believes that while he represents the majority of South Carolinians, your publication does not."
Condon is not just inaccessible to POINT, he is notoriously unavailable to the "legitimate" media other than through staged events. His colleagues say he is generally aloof, and is seldom in his Columbia office. He works either out of his million-dollar home on Sullivan's Island or in an office rented from the city of Charleston that isn't listed in the state directory.
The most the author got from Condon directly was a brief handshake (no smile, fleeting eye contact) as the candidate emerged from filming a campaign commercial.
While Condon's voice, regrettably, is absent from this profile, his record speaks for itself. And the stories family members, colleagues and former political opponents tell about Condon reveal a man driven to make it to the top, at all cost.
What makes this picture of Condon so revealing is its other side. Like a surreal mirror image, another rally against domestic violence was taking place on the other side of the State House.
The event had no choir, no band, no governor. It was sponsored by a coalition of some 30 South Carolina groups that work with battered women. They had been invited to be props in Condon's show but were not offered a meaningful role, according to Susan Higginbotham, director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence And Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA).
"In other states, the attorney general doesn't have his own event; he joins the advocacy groups in theirs," Higginbotham said. "We wanted to have a solemn event, not participate in someone's political campaign."
Condon doesn't have a working relationship with the members of the coalition, and often even works against them in the legislature. During the last legislative session, for instance, he called for chemical castration of repeat sexual offenders. SCCADVASA and other victims' advocates oppose chemical castration, saying it is a political gimmick.
"The issue is violence, not sex," Higginbotham said. "Chemical castration is not a cure, and may make offenders more violent."
Although Condon placed Higginbotham on a review committee to satisfy a federal grant requirement, she said he has never sought her advice on policy matters and has never acknowledged her letters offering to help shape productive legislation.
"His true interest," Higginbotham said, "is in getting a good clip for the evening news."
Condon grew up in Charleston the third of nine children. His father, Joe Condon, was the youngest of three brothers who ran Condon's Department Store. Condon's Catholic-Irish great-grandfather started the family business as a dry goods store in 1896.
Charlie Condon's younger brother Danny said that working in the store is a rite of passage for the Condon kids. "Charlie worked here in high school and summers in college," he said. He described his brother as having always been "driven."
Condon attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. A contemporary at Bishop England High School remembered him as cut-throat, even then. "Charlie was the kind of kid that would take his brothers' friends in a second."
Condon graduated magna cum laude from Notre Dame in 1975, and received a law degree from Duke in 1978. He met Emily Yarborough at Duke, where she was in medical school. The two married and have four children.
Condon worked for a year with a Columbia law firm before being hired as assistant solicitor for the Ninth Circuit in 1980.
A few months later, Condon was running for solicitor. Capers Barr, who had been the solicitor for four years, was retiring, and Robert Rosen, an influential Broad Street lawyer and Democratic Party power broker, chose Condon to be Barr's successor.
Condon was a Democrat with a good Charleston family background and a fine education. He was an attractive candidate, but there was one problem: Condon was against the death penalty. Prevailing wisdom said that you couldn't get elected solicitor if you wouldn't execute people.
Attorney Bill Regan remembers that Rosen was selected to talk to Condon about the political necessity of changing his stance.
"Robert called and said, `I've been talking to this damned Charlie Condon for six hours about the death penalty, and the nuns have him so scared of going to hell he's crazy."
Condon agreed to change his position on the death penalty, won the Democratic primary, and became the youngest solicitor in South Carolina history.
At times, there are more lawyers than tourists in the Holy City. There are 38 pages of lawyers listed in the Charleston phone book, and it's still hard to find one that has much good to say about Attorney General Condon.
Comments ranged from "He's a son of a bitch" to "I'd rather not comment." Many were wary of speaking on the record. As one lawyer put it, "If I make unkind remarks about Charlie, the files of the lawyers I represent before him would go to the top of the stack."
Condon, apparently, has never been popular with his colleagues. When he ran for attorney general in 1994, only a handful of his former employees supported him.
The scene of the last day in office is revealing. "Normally, all the office doors were open," said an attorney who worked for Condon. "On the day Charlie left, all the doors were closed. No one offered to help [him move]. People were relieved he was leaving."
Bill Runyon was Condon's Democratic opposition in the 1980 solicitor's race. "Charlie had no practical experience," Runyon said, "and rather than want competent people who could make him look good, he saw them as a threat."
Condon has stepped on a few toes and a good number of necks in his rise to the top. The following stories offer a glimpse of how he plays in his own hometown.
Condon hadn't been solicitor long when, in a move that earned him the enmity of much of the Charleston legal community, he fired Assistant Solicitor Andy Savage.
"Andy was twice as good as Charlie," remembered Charleston lawyer Edward Pritchard. "Charlie was the pretend solicitor, and the police would insist on dealing with Andy. Charlie didn't like being upstaged."
Condon fired Savage a few weeks before Savage's wife died of leukemia. Nearly 20 years later, the incident still angers Pritchard. "Andy had come back to Charleston so his wife could die at home," he said. "When Charlie fired him, Andy lost his income and medical benefits for his wife. Condon's got as much business talking about family values as Jack the Ripper."
Runyon said, "Charlie wouldn't even let people off to go to Andy's wife's funeral."
In 1981, Condon further alienated the very people who put him in office when he started a pattern of staging press conferences that appeared self-promotional.
He used a series of them to attack district court Judge Klyde Robinson.
Runyon said, "The feds had busted Sheriff [James] Rogers of Berkeley County for bribery, and had a wire tap where the sheriff was bragging about his connections. Rogers bragged about giving the judge a slot machine. There were never any concerns that Judge Robinson was involved in anything improper other than having a slot machine in his beach house as a conversation piece."
Although the judge gave the slot machine to the FBI and was not being investigated by the feds, Condon held a press conference to announce he was investigating the judge.
"Charlie milked it for months of publicity," said Rob Wendt, a Charleston attorney and Robinson's law clerk at the time. "One day Judge Robinson stormed into Charlie's office and demanded, `Indict me or tell the public you're not going to.' And Condon let the issue die."
Wendt said, "Judge Robinson was a Harvard law grad, former U.S. attorney and one of our better judges, and Charlie drove him off the bench to get some publicity."
Judge Robinson did not seek reappointment after the incident.
Condon scored another big media hit in 1988 at the expense of longtime colleague Allen Badger, the deputy solicitor in charge of drug prosecutions. She had worked for Condon for more than six years.
The story involved "Big Head" Reynolds, who had a prior conviction for cocaine and was facing new charges. Badger said the police offered Reynolds a deal if he would turn in some people. Reynolds then told the police he had given someone a bag of cocaine in front of Badger on a street in downtown Charleston.
"This guy had no credibility," Badger said. "He's out on probation for multiple ounces of coke and facing additional charges. I didn't think anything would come from his ridiculous allegation." She was wrong.
"I got a call from a friend who told me that this thing looks like it's getting serious, and Condon is giving credence to the allegation." Badger said. "I started getting nervous because in my six-and-a-half years I had seen so many people get screwed by him. He never stood by his employees.
"Several days later, Charlie called me to his Ivory Tower -- that's what we called his office, it was a separate, locked space with his secretary, Garden Frampton, for a guard -- and there were two SLED agents there. Charlie never spoke to me about having any concerns over the allegations. He apparently called SLED -- knew they were coming -- and never mentioned it to me."
Faced with being fired or arrested, Badger resigned that afternoon.