Pubdate: Sun, 21 Oct 2001
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2001 The State
Author: Rick Brundrett, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Pregnancy)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


As Charlie Condon Makes His Bid To Be Governor, His High-profile Record 
Draws Differing Views

Since taking office nearly seven years ago, South Carolina Attorney General 
Charlie Condon has never run out of things to say, churning out more than 
500 news releases through his in-house media operation. The former 
Charleston solicitor has tackled issues his lower-profile predecessors 
never dreamed of touching. Some of his positions, such as his prosecution 
of pregnant, drug-addicted women or his declaration of "open season" on 
home intruders, have drawn national attention.

Condon's supporters see him as a visionary who has breathed life into a 
historically inactive office, cracked down on violent criminals and 
championed victims' rights. They say he's made reforms in long-neglected 
areas, such as domestic violence.

"He's really a man of action out there trying to make a difference," said 
Greenville lawyer Catherine Christophillis, who used to work for Condon.

Yet, as the 48-year-old Condon finishes his seventh year as attorney 
general, his critics say he's a poor lawyer who has mishandled major cases, 
and a political grandstander who cares only about higher office. "I've 
never heard an attorney say anything positive about the guy," said John 
Crangle, head of the watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina. The 
State newspaper used information supplied by Condon, as well as data from 
other sources, to conduct a review of his record.

The review shows:

. Condon's highly promoted insurance fraud unit ranked sixth last year in 
total convictions among states with similar units, despite having a budget 
smaller than most. But its conviction rate has varied and once dipped as 
low as 7 percent of open cases.

. Other units or programs Condon created with much fanfare have produced 
questionable results. For example, a phone hotline aimed at keeping guns 
out of schools and preventing bomb threats generated three valid tips while 
managed by his office.

. Condon uses his most powerful crime-fighting tool, the State Grand Jury, 
about half as much as his predecessor, though his conviction rate is higher.

. Condon's budget has risen at a rate three times faster than state 
government overall, even as Condon, running for governor as a Republican, 
promises to cut state spending by 15 percent.

Condon, whose second, four-year term ends in January 2003, says he is proud 
of his accomplishments and believes there isn't much left for him to do as 
the state's chief prosecutor.

"I think the (criminal justice) system has been totally revamped in the 
last four or five years," Condon said. "I can't find many things out there 
crying out for reform ... What I campaigned on is all done."


Over the years, Condon has announced more than a dozen programs, committees 
or other initiatives to combat violent and white-collar crime.

Some have been more successful than others:

. Condon's insurance fraud unit had one of the smallest budgets in the 
nation in 2000. Yet, it ranked sixth in the total number of convictions out 
of 27 states with similar units, according to a study by the Coalition 
Against Insurance Fraud. That year, Condon's unit had 85 convictions -- 20 
percent of the 423 open files last year.

The conviction rates for the two prior years were 30 percent and 7 percent, 

. From 1997 through 1999, Condon's Medicaid fraud unit jumped from 23rd in 
the nation in total convictions to seventh. The unit's budget and staffing 
were about in the middle. There were 38 convictions in 1999, compared to 10 
in 1997.

But the unit's ranking in the amount of money recovered fell from 29th to 
38th in those years. It recovered about $595,500 in 1997 and about $148,800 
in 1999.

Despite several requests over two months, Condon's office did not provide 
The State with detailed information on its Medicaid or securities fraud unit.

As for the State Grand Jury, created in 1989 to handle public corruption 
and multicounty drug and obscenity cases, Condon's overall conviction rate 
is better than his predecessor, Travis Medlock, according to figures from 
the S.C. Office of Court Administration.

During Condon's tenure, the conviction rate of the State Grand Jury has 
averaged 62 percent, compared to 44 percent during Medlock's years.

But Medlock's caseload was far heavier than Condon's. During Medlock's 
administration, the State Grand Jury disposed of an average of 282 charges 
a year, compared to Condon's yearly average of 118 charges.

Condon has posted small numbers in other areas.

A telephone hotline Condon created in 1999 to catch students who bring guns 
to school or who make bomb threats has generated only three valid tips, 
according to figures from Condon's office.

Rick Daniel, Condon's special assistant for law enforcement, says that 
figure is misleading because calls have not been tracked since the hotline 
was transferred a year ago to the state Crime Stoppers program, which 
Condon helped start. That program doesn't keep hotline statistics. "You're 
not going to get a ton of calls (from the hotline), and I think no one ever 
expected that," said Daniel, one of six people in Condon's public relations 

Daniel couldn't provide specific figures for another hotline Condon created 
in 1996 to help stop school violence. He estimated that hotline averages 
about a dozen calls a week during the school year.

Daniel said that hotline wasn't created to arrest bullies; rather, it 
mainly provides suggestions to parents and educators on how to deal with 

Total cost figures for either hotline were unavailable, though Daniel said 
his review of several months showed the average monthly cost was $5 to $12 

Condon acknowledged his school violence program has suffered since the 
firing of its coordinator last November.

Condon said he couldn't fill the job because the former coordinator filed a 
grievance over the firing, which Condon said was upheld in an 
administrative hearing.

Some proposals have seen more tangible results, according to Condon and 
Daniel. They point to the closing last year of 16 highway rest stops 
following a robbery spree, and the creation of a state gang database with a 
$315,000 federal grant.

But it was Gov. Jim Hodges, not Condon's task force, who first called for 
closing the rest stops.

And Condon's office acknowledged that its statewide gang task force, 
created in 1998, has been defunct for about two years. Condon spokesman 
Robb McBurney said, however, the committee's main purpose was to propose 
legislation, which it did.

Condon insists he doesn't abandon his proposals after an initial media 
splash, as his critics claim. "I think I'm really good on following 
through," he said.


Condon often makes quick decisions without a thorough analysis of the 
problem, said Jack Swerling, a longtime Columbia criminal defense lawyer.

"He's the chief prosecutor in the state, but I think Charlie has forgotten 
he's a lawyer," said Swerling, a Democrat. "He's like an unguided Scud 
missile: He doesn't know where he's going."

Eldon Wedlock, a USC law school professor, said Condon is more of an 
"activist" attorney general compared to his predecessors. But he described 
many of Condon's proposals as "half-baked and not well thought out in a 
lawyerly position."

Condon's background as a criminal lawyer hasn't always helped him when 
dealing with complicated civil cases, Wedlock said. Two national legal 
journalists said Condon was unprepared for questions by U.S. Supreme Court 
justices in a 1999 case involving driver's license records.

"Remember, he's a trial lawyer, not an appellate lawyer," Wedlock said 
about that case. "What is needed there is a more modulated kind of 
approach, and a clear command of every fact and relevant law in the case."

McBurney said Condon didn't have problems answering the justices' questions.

"A couple anti-states' rights justices were trying to drag him down a 
horrible parade of slippery slopes," McBurney said. "He wasn't giving them 
the answer they wanted, and they were getting irritated."

Condon's critics say he routinely lets politics dictate his decision-making.

"I think the basic problem with Charlie Condon is similar to the problem 
that (former Attorney General) Medlock had: He's had these ambitions to run 
for governor since Day 1," said Common Cause's Crangle.

Medlock, a Democratic candidate for governor in 1994, was attorney general 
from 1983 to 1995.Crangle said Daniel McLeod, attorney general from 1959 to 
1983, was the last attorney general to put "the office first and politics 

Condon is respected among his peers, though not everyone agrees with his 
positions, said Kansas Attorney General Carla Stovall, a Republican and 
president of the National Association of Attorneys General. "Personally and 
professionally, he has a great deal of respect," she said.

Condon, a University of Notre Dame and Duke University law school graduate, 
counters that his lawyer critics would prefer him to "sit around reading 
law books and giving opinions."

"I don't view this as a lawyer's position answerable to the lawyers," 
Condon said. "You're answerable to the people of South Carolina. You have 
to have broad appeal."

Still, Condon said he has taken positions that haven't been popular with 
voters, such as his opposition to video poker and the lottery.


Condon, who was the solicitor in Charleston from 1981-92, hasn't been 
popular among local prosecutors.

One of Condon's first acts when he became attorney general was to order 
prosecutors statewide to stop plea bargaining with repeat, violent 
offenders. He later banned plea bargaining for robbers and those who commit 
serious school crimes.

Condon drew national media attention in January when he declared "open 
season" on home intruders. He announced residents would not be prosecuted 
if they killed an intruder while defending their homes.

In May, Condon ordered prosecutors statewide to quit dismissing serious 
domestic violence cases solely because victims didn't want to prosecute. 
Victim advocates applauded the move. But some S.C. solicitors question 
Condon's directives.

"Sometimes, a blanket policy can be a dangerous thing. A prosecutor is 
required to assess each case on its merits," said Tommy Pope, the 
Republican solicitor in York and president of the S.C. Solicitors Association.

Condon says the state constitution mandates that he supervise prosecutors 
and gives him the authority to take over local cases when necessary. "I 
know they don't like it, but I just consider it part of my job," he said.

Some prosecutors in the past have ignored Condon's no-plea-bargaining 
directives, said David Schwacke, the former Republican solicitor in 
Charleston and once one of Condon's assistants.

"Charlie always points to the constitution to prove he can control 
solicitors," said Schwacke, who lost his re-election bid last year. "But we 
also know that we have been elected by the people of our respective 
circuits to do the justice they want."

Schwacke's successor, Republican Ralph Hoisington, said some prosecutors 
have over-reacted to Condon's directives.

"While I do think there is a certain political flair to those decisions, 
it's nothing more than clarifying what the law is in South Carolina," said 


Condon's critics say he has mixed politics and religion in his pursuit of 
criminal cases involving pregnant women.

"I have taken a strong, pro-life stand," said Condon, a Catholic. "I do 
feel very strongly about unborn children."

His conservative views helped him win critical support in the 1994 and 1998 

Condon's deep beliefs led to a controversial policy of prosecuting 
pregnant, cocaine-addicted women, a practice he started as the solicitor in 

In May, Condon won a case against Regina McKnight, sentenced to 12 years in 
prison after an Horry County jury convicted her of killing her unborn fetus 
by smoking crack cocaine.

Women's rights advocates say McKnight was the first woman in the country to 
be convicted by a jury in such a case.

Wyndi Anderson, executive director of South Carolina Advocates for Pregnant 
Women, said Condon's policy has been directed at poor, African-American 
women such as McKnight. "There's a certain group he's going after, so that 
tells me what his real agenda is -- politics," Anderson said.

She said only three women have been imprisoned under Condon's policy, but 
many more have spent "weeks or months in county jails, which is completely 
disruptive to their lives." Christophillis, who helped develop Condon's 
policy when she worked in the Attorney General's Office, said the protocol 
stresses treatment options and calls for prosecution as a last resort.

"Where are all the women in jail?" said Christophillis, now in private 
practice in Greenville. "I get frustrated with critics because I see a lot 
of women getting help."

Figures were unavailable on how many women have received treatment because 
of the policy.

In a related case, 10 low-income women, who were prosecuted under Condon's 
policy while he was solicitor in Charleston, sued and won their case in 
March in the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled authorities couldn't test 
them for drugs without their consent or without a warrant, though it didn't 
overturn Condon's protocol entirely.

Condon makes no apology for his policy, explaining it is supported by a 
S.C. Supreme Court decision that says a viable fetus is considered a person 
under state child-abuse laws.

"We're the only state in the Union that recognizes an unborn, viable fetus 
as a person," Condon said. "I think the position speaks volumes about the 
heart and soul of this state."


Condon's handling of certain lawsuits, including the one dealing with 
pregnant, drug-addicted women, has cost the state millions of dollars, his 
critics claim. "He takes a position and then defends it to the last dime of 
taxpayer dollars," said USC's Wedlock.

Wedlock said Condon should spend more time on lawsuits that have greater 
impact on the state. Condon, for example, could have reached a far bigger 
settlement from Colonial Pipeline, which damaged miles of Greenville 
County's Reedy River in a 1996 oil spill, he said.

"He doesn't aggressively pursue polluters because he's a Republican, and 
it's bad for business," Wedlock said.

Condon has described the $6.6 million settlement as a record environment 
settlement for the state.

Condon also has been criticized for his handling of the landmark $2.2 
billion tobacco settlement in 1998, which was part of a national settlement 
with major cigarette manufacturers.

Condon made a deal with seven law firms to represent South Carolina, but 
later fired them after The State reported they could make more than $500 
million in legal fees for doing little work on the case.

The tobacco deal was the largest settlement of its kind in recent state 
history, Condon points out.

Condon says his most important accomplishment as attorney general was the 
1996 voter passage of a constitutional amendment establishing a crime 
victim "Bill of Rights." It requires authorities to notify crime victims of 
developments in their cases.

Condon pushed hard for the amendment, despite opposition from solicitors 
and police officials, who typically had been notifying victims only in 
high-profile cases, said Laura Hudson, executive director of S.C. Crime 
Victim Network, a victims' advocacy group. "I would call Charlie somewhat 
of a visionary," Hudson said.

Condon said he also successfully pushed for legislation that speeds up 
death penalty appeals, bans parole for offenders convicted of two or more 
serious offenses and commits sexually violent predators for mental health 

Condon said he believes his programs have helped reduce violent crime in 
recent years, noting state crime rates have been "dropping like a rock." 
The number of violent crimes dropped 11 percent from 1995 through 2000, 
State Law Enforcement Division records show. But there are other reasons 
for the reduction in crime, said Geoffrey Alpert, a USC criminal justice 

A good economy, fewer male teen-agers and new police programs help explain 
the decade-long drop in violent crime rates, Alpert said.

"Crime will go up again," he said, citing the slowing economy as a possible 
factor. "What will Charlie Condon say when the rates go back up?"

Reach Brundrett at (803) 771-8484 or at  ---
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