From Jurassic Park to the County Line, Political Intimidation Runs Gamut

April 18, 2016

Investigative Reports

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By RON AIKEN

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Some State House pols not averse to using government to intimidate opponents, critics

One night while a student at Clemson back in 1993, Talbert Black was bored.

Since Jurassic Park had just come out, he rented the VCR from the mom and pop video shop down the street and enjoyed the Steven Spielberg thriller.

Instead of returning it to the local video store, however, he mistakenly returned it to the Blockbuster across the street where he also rented movies. This youthful error triggered an unfortunate series of events including a warrant for his arrest being taken out by the aggrieved store owner before Black resolved the matter by getting the video back from Blockbuster and returning it to its rightful owner some four months later.

Fast-forward to 2009, and Black, now coordinator for the South Carolina Campaign for Liberty, found himself in a heated argument with his state senator, Jake Knotts of Lexington.

“This was back when the fight to get mandatory roll call-voting passed was in high gear,” Black said. “It was a big issue to all the grassroots organizations across the state.

I had gone down to the State House for something and ran into Senator Knotts. I knew the bill at that time was in his committee, and we probably had a 30 to 45-minute conversation about it where he was very condescending to me about it.”

With the conversation going nowhere, Black knew he wouldn’t change Knotts’ mind.

“I said, ‘Well, it’s clear you won’t be supporting the bill in subcommittee” Black said. “He said, ‘I don’t even know what subcommittee it’s in.’ I said, ‘Senator, it’s in your subcommittee.’

“And he said, ‘Then you can rest assured it’s never going to see the light of day.’”

After this, Black sent out an email to grassroots political organizations about the conversation, and it had the desired effect.

“His phone lines lit up,” Black said. “It was nice.”

What wasn’t so nice, Black believes, was what happened next.

About two weeks later Black was driving home from a friend’s house in Northeast Columbia and was pulled over for having a headlight out. He’d already bought the replacement light but had not yet installed it.

“I showed the office the light and he said no problem, he’d just run my license and I’d be on my way,” Black said. “A few minutes later he came back, put me in cuffs and arrested be for non-return of rental equipment from 1993.

“I thought about that for a second and remembered I’d been pulled over several times for speeding since then, and it had never come up before. I’d even recently gotten a concealed weapons permit and had it renewed. I asked the officer why that was, and he started typing on his computer before saying, ‘Huh. That’s interesting.’”

What was interesting was that the arrest warrant hadn’t shown up until the day before he was pulled over.

“I thought about it over and over, and in my mind there’s no way it wasn’t connected to (Sen.) Jake Knotts,” Black said. “With his law enforcement connections, he did a search on me and found that warrant never got dismissed even though I returned the video. It was just sitting there in Pickens County despite the fact that the video store had long since closed.”

Since it was in Pickens County and he was in Richland and since it was a Friday night, he was to await transport to Pickens County on Monday to go before a judge on Tuesday. His son’s prom was Saturday night, and a lunch was scheduled for Saturday with the parents of the two teens and the teenage couple.

Fortunately, a family connection was able to reach a Pickens County police office, and the matter was quickly settled in time for his release Saturday afternoon (he missed the lunch, but not prom pictures).

Senator Knotts in particular had a reputation for using his law enforcement connections to bully opponents and critics, often dropping in on friendly newspaper editors or reporters and leaving them enormous folders full of confidential information on his enemies. In fact, Black himself witnessed that behavior on one occasion.

“A few years later I was in his office talking about something else and he reached over to filing cabinet,” Black said. “He pulled out a folder he had with Mark Sanford’s name on it. He said, ‘You know what that is? I said it looked like a folder with the governor’s name on it.

“He said, ‘That’s right. The governor has been writing some checks out of his campaign account he shouldn’t have been writing. You know what I’m going to do with it?”’ I said I sure didn’t, and he said, ‘Nothing for now. I’m just gonna hold on to it until the time is right to use it,’ and he put it back into his filing cabinet.

“I don’t know what ever happened to that folder.”

Unfortunately, politicians using their political connections or even using the wheels of government itself to punish, threaten, bully or intimidate critics is still an issue in South Carolina.

Consider:

  • In June 2014, the head of a national gun-rights advocacy group charged Gov. Nikki Haley with sicking the S.C. Ethics Commission on his organizations. As reported by The Nerve, a lawyer with the ethics commission admitted to being asked by Haley’s office to contact the group, the National Association for Gun Rights, which was opposing a gun-reform bill Haley wanted to see passed.
    “Simply by the Ethics Commission calling our office and asking about an existing and pending matter before the Legislature – it was a clear method to intimidate citizens from practicing free speech,” said Brown, who lives in Colorado and also serves as CEO of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Gun Owners organization.
    “This was a transparent bully attempt by (Haley) warning us, ‘Shut up, or the Ethics Commission is coming to look at you.’”
  • A citizen who sent a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee detailing what he believed to be misuses of campaign funds by Sen. John Matthews (D-Orangeburg) and Sen. Luke Rankin (R-Horry) – both of whom sit on the Ethics Committee – received a letter in the mail from Rankin that concluded with a stern warning that the citizen could be subject to prosecution from the Attorney General’s office for the manner in which he submitted his complaint.
  • At the local level, political ill will can turn just as ugly, such as when members of the Lexington-Richland School District 5 were so upset with then-board member Kim Murphy of Chapin that an effort was successfully made to re-draw the county line so as to remove her home from being in the county and, therefore, ineligible to serve.

Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411. Email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.

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