Columns » John Brummett

Cronies? But are they rascals?



Pondering the tentacles of state Sen. Bob Johnson of Bigelow into the Lottery Commission's developing staff sent me to the dictionary. I sought a definition of “cronyism.”

Here it is: “Partiality to cronies especially as evidenced in the appointment of political hangers-on to office without regard for qualifications.”

So I looked up “crony” and found it defined as “long-time friend or political associate.”

Thus it seems that cronyism, by itself, is not quite as bad as it connotes — not as bad as it sounded, for example, in that Coen brothers' film, “O, Brother, Where Art Thou,” when one caricatured Southern politician accused another of assorted misdeeds he described as “rascalism and cronyism.”

It doesn't follow automatically that cronies engage in corrupt behavior that accrues to the ill-gotten gain of the benefactor. You can have cronyism without necessarily having rascalism. You see. Here's the thing: Years ago Ray Thornton was the Democratic congressman from the 2nd District. On his staff were Julie Baldridge, Bob Johnson and Bridgette Frazier.

Thornton went on to get elected to the state Supreme Court, and is now retired. Johnson got elected to the state Legislature, becoming speaker of the House and then president pro tem of the Senate. In each leading legislative office, Johnson borrowed Baldridge from a development job at the Little Rock law school to be his right hand during legislative sessions.

As speaker of the House in 1999, Johnson got a position of “House counsel” created, and Frazier, a lawyer, was installed in it, holding it until just the other day.

These are close, mutually admiring and mutually devoted people. So we got the lottery approved and it was to be governed by nine commissioners, with three apiece appointed by the governor, Senate president pro tem and speaker of the House.

Johnson, as Senate president pro tem, appointed Thornton, who got chosen by the other eight appointees as chairman and, in turn, championed the hiring of Ernie Passailaigue.

Then Passailaigue, more or less immediately, made Baldridge his first employee as his top administrative aide. She left the law school for a raise of about $30,000.

Last week Passailaigue hired his lottery staff counsel, and it was, you guessed it, Frazier.

So I was on the phone with Johnson, who, alone among state politicians, fervently defends the new lottery amid this political and public relations disaster over outrageous salaries. I recited those aforementioned connections to him and asked about the propriety.

It's all just “happenstance,” he said.

He explained it this way: During the last session he asked Baldridge to find somebody experienced in lotteries who might advise the Legislature on the implementing legislation. It was she who located and befriended the South Carolinian, Passailaigue, who made a purely independent decision to hire her. Frazier then came in and landed the lawyer's post without any help from him.

These are smart people and Passailaigue apparently saw that plainly for himself, Johnson said.

So what of it?

If Johnson wins a subsequent lottery drawing, our eyebrows will rise. If Passailaigue goes back to South Carolina and Johnson, who is term-limited on both legislative ends of the Capitol, gets hired to replace him, eyebrows will elevate further.

But Johnson only appointed three of the nine commissioners, and, anyway, he says he wouldn't take the job for 10 times what Passailaigue is generously getting.

There's one more consideration: The lottery will be handing out contracts for all kinds of services. We will be watching to see if entities with ties to Johnson — or Thornton, or even Baldridge or Frazier — land any.

“Fair enough,” Johnson said, adding, “Nobody should get favored treatment, but I don't think anyone ought to be excluded because of some incidental relationship either.”

Thus our job, as ever, is to be on the lookout for rascalism.

Add a comment