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Noble: The $123 million scandal

Posted: January 27, 2015 7:46 p.m.
Updated: January 28, 2015 1:00 a.m.

“Someone needs to go to jail.”

These were the words of outrage of freshman S.C. Legislator Cezar McKnight when discussing the scandal of the $123 million in fines the state has paid for its 25-year failure to comply with federal law with regard to deadbeat dads. The question is, can this young reformer do something about this, or will politics as usual in South Carolina prevail?

First the legislator and then the scandal.

Cezar McKnight is a 41-year-old freshman legislator from Kingstree who wants to make a difference. A native son, Cezar went away to school and came back to his hometown with a law degree and a determination to change things. Two years ago, he ran against long-term incumbent Sen. Yancey McGill and almost knocked him off, losing by only 81 votes.

And when Sen. McGill unexpectedly became Lt. Gov. McGill in June of last year, there was a good old fashioned political brawl in the Pee Dee and when all the smoke cleared, Rep. Ronnie Sabb was Senator Sabb and McKnight was the new representative from State House District 101.

Now the scandal. Last week, I was in the neighborhood and dropped in on Cezar for lunch after his first week in the legislature. On the one hand he was all excited about the prospects of being in a position to “do something,” but a bit underwhelmed by what he saw and heard on his first week on the job.

We talked about some ideas and issues he might become involved with and then I mentioned the ongoing scandal with the so called deadbeat dad computer system, which I had been researching for a future column.

The facts of the scandal are these: In 1992, the U.S. Congress passed a law saying every state had to build a statewide computerized tracking system to enforce the collection of child support payments. In short, the system would track deadbeat dads as they moved from place to place with different jobs, thus ensuring that they paid their child support payments.

Now, here it is nearly 25 years later, and South Carolina is the only state which doesn’t have an operational system, and as a result the state has been assessed more than $123 million in penalties. Yes, you read that right -- $123 million. And the most recent estimate is we are still as long as four years, and God know how many more millions in fines away from having a workable system.

The more we talked, the more exercised and upset Cezar became. By the time the cheesecake dessert arrived, he was so livid about the whole thing, I got to eat all the cheesecake he had ordered for us to share. He didn’t even notice.

On the Tuesday after we talked, as soon as he was back in Columbia for the beginning of the legislative week, Cezar went right to work. He tracked down and called the folks at the S.C. Department of Social Services who are responsible, and within hours he had the latest information on what was happening.

He was outraged by what he found. He forwarded me the information with a one sentence email: “Someone needs to go to jail.” Later on the phone he elaborated in comments that could not be printed in a family newspaper.

So here it is folks. This is the opening scene of a South Carolina version of the great classic movie with Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In both cases, an eager, well-intentioned young man comes to the capital and is outraged by what he finds. In South Carolina, it’s obvious incompetence at best and outright fraud at worst -- $123 million in fines when we as a state don’t have the money to provide adequate nutrition and health care for our children or decently paid teachers in “minimally adequate” schools.

I don’t know what is going to happen now. Will Cezar be like Jimmy Stewart, with right winning out in the end? Or will all of this just get lost in the shuffle of Columbia.

I know what should happen -- see Cezar’s jail comment above -- and I know what Cezar wants to see happen. But politics as usual in Columbia is, well, politics as usual in Columbia.

I’m not much for happy fairy tale endings, see Mr. Smith movie for that; after all it was a Hollywood movie and not real life.

But this is about something really important. It’s not about Cezar or computer systems or corruption or incompetence or politics as usual. It’s about us and what kind of government we will have.

The question is fundamental and basic: Can a decent person who wants to do the right thing make a difference and make a change in South Carolina state government, when things are so clearly and so obviously wrong and in need of real change?

I’m not sure what the answer will be; it’s an open question. But as for me, I’m betting on Cezar.

Stay tuned.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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