By BARTON SWAIM
‘It gets ugly real quick’
Talbert Black isn’t one of Columbia’s innumerable “politicos” – he’s not a politician or a consultant or a lobbyist. He’s a software engineer in Lexington County, a soft spoken guy with a heavy native accent and a warm, guileless smile.
And yet every politico in the capital knows the name “Talbert.” Why? Because he’s everywhere. He shows up at Senate subcommittee meetings on government restructuring; he’s at public hearings on ethics reform; he’s behind the podium at anti-Obamacare rallies and press conferences denouncing corporate welfare; he approaches legislators in the State House lobby to talk about bills they haven’t read. His strength as a political activist isn’t ferocity or eloquence. It’s sheer tenacity.
More than anything else, Black, a citizen reporter for The Nerve, is an outspoken proponent of transparency and accountability in state government. And not in the abstract sense, either: he names names.
Over the years his candor and energy have earned him a number of powerful critics – maybe a better word is “enemies.” He tells me of an instance in May of 2009 when he had a blunt conversation with a well-known and powerful Midlands lawmaker. The subject was a bill requiring roll call votes. “Can we count on your help getting that bill out of subcommittee?” Black asked the lawmaker. The response was dismissive, but when it emerged that the legislation was then in the lawmaker’s own subcommittee, he responded with what Black describes as condescension: “That bill will never see the light of day.”
Black, then as now the State Coordinator for South Carolina Campaign for Liberty, emailed the exchange to a large list of contacts, emphasizing the lawmaker’s superior attitude. How remarkable, then, that a few days later Black should find himself in jail on a ridiculous charge dug up from 16 years earlier.
In 1993 Black, then a student at Clemson, had checked out several videocassettes from a Blockbuster video store. “I returned them all on time,” he tells me, “but one of them hadn’t come from Blockbuster. I’d forgotten. It came from this mom-and-pop place in Pickens.” The store owner had become irate when the video cassette wasn’t returned and reported the “theft” to the police. An arrest warrant was issued, but before the arrest was made the store owner found Black’s phone number and told him he’d be arrested if he didn’t return that cassette. “I went straight to Blockbuster and got the man’s cassette,” he says. “I returned it to him that day.”
The only trouble: the warrant was never canceled. So, 16 years later, when Black was pulled over by a police officer in Richland County, the officer ran a check on Black’s license. Although it was only a routine traffic stop (he had a broken headlight), the officer told Black to get out of the car. He was handcuffed, told there was an arrest warrant for him in Pickens County, and taken to the police station for questioning.
“I told the officer, ‘This is kind of strange. I’ve been stopped before and nothing came up. I have a concealed weapons permit and SLED did a background check on me. They didn’t say anything about this Pickens thing.’”
That’s when the officer noticed something odd. The 16-year-old arrest warrant had been entered into the National Crime Information Center database one day before. Soon it became evident to the officers that something wasn’t right. When Pickens County showed no interest in apprehending this fugitive from justice, Black was allowed to go home.
“No big deal,” he says. “Still, it was pretty scary being handcuffed and taken in when I didn’t even know what I’d done.”
Does he think the legislator was behind it? “There’s no proof. But everybody knows he has a lot of connections in law enforcement. The circumstantial evidence is pretty suggestive.”
More recently, Black has fallen afoul of a few Columbia-based “political consultants.” Since April he has used Twitter to express strong support for the South Carolina Policy Council’s Project Conflict Watch, an effort to get state elected officials to voluntarily disclose their sources of private income. (The Policy Council is The Nerve’s parent organization.)
On July 25, he became involved in a Twitter exchange in which he asked, “Why would anyone be against #DiscloseSC?” (SCPC originated this “hashtag” to reference the issue of income disclosure). That elicited a series of acerbic responses from a Columbia-based political consultant named David Carter. Talbert and his supporters were “frauds” and “nuts,” SCPC an organization that “smears” and “slanders” elected officials (no examples were given), and Black himself a “sad” person who “troll[s] the internet.” Black, perhaps not unreasonably, shot back that Carter was a “paid political hack.”
Unpleasant stuff, some of it – but nothing far out of the ordinary for social media. Then it got nasty.
Carter: “Let’s talk about your restraining order.”
Black: “Yes, let’s! Please do tell me about it! I’m interested in your oppo research!” And again: “Please tell me about restraining order! It will be the first I’ve heard of it!”
Carter: “This refresh your memory?”
Here Carter attached a screenshot (an image “grabbed” from his computer screen). It showed a partial image of Lexington County online database linking the name “Black Jr., Talbert James” to a “RESTRAINING ORDER.”
Black: “No. Doesn’t refresh my memory at all. You’ve gotta do better than that.”
As the exchange went on, Carter insisted that “court orders don’t lie about your restraining order. Unlike you, I have documentation. You have none.”
Was the restraining order real? “Yeah, it was real all right,” Black tells me. “But it wasn’t against me. I was the one who requested it against someone else. It wasn’t granted, but I requested it against my ex-wife’s husband to protect my children after he bruised one with a belt. I had forgotten about it. That happened in 1999 – a long time ago.”
A look at the database easily bears out Black’s claim.
Carter’s tweets have since been deleted. Screenshots of them have been preserved, however – here and here – as has Carter’s partial screenshot of the restraining order. On July 28, he offered a nondescript apology to Black.
“Once again, no big deal,” Black says. “But man, when you challenge the political elite of this town, it gets ugly quick.”