County councilman. State attorney general’s assistant. Private attorney. Circuit court judge. South Carolina U.S. Attorney. Chief of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
Reginald I. Lloyd -- “Reggie” to his friends -- has been all these things in what many legal and political observers believed was a meteoric rise that could have led to Washington, D.C. Lloyd’s desire to serve the public, whether in his native Camden and Kershaw County or statewide, took a path of interesting choices. Just when some thought the young circuit court judge (he was 36 when he took the bench) might be on a steady ride to the U.S. Supreme Court, he agreed to become South Carolina’s first permanent African-American U.S. Attorney in 100 years.
The February 2006 move was a nationally-charged appointment with no less than U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham making the request of former President George W. Bush. Some saw Lloyd -- a Republican -- as possibly being groomed for a place on a greater political stage.
Exactly two years later, however, Lloyd said he knew that even if another Republican had been elected president after George W. Bush, his federal career was likely over. So, he agreed to become only the third person to lead SLED in 50 years and its first African-American chief.
Since only two men had served as SLED chief before him, some thought Lloyd would follow in their footsteps and stay at SLED for years to come. Or, perhaps, lead to heading a federal law enforcement agency.
Neither happened. In early 2011, Lloyd announced plans to step down.
A man with a quiet voice, Lloyd was not quiet about why, but has rarely talked about those last months since leaving SLED almost a year ago.
In an exclusive interview Tuesday -- during part of which he was joined by his 10-year-old son, William -- Lloyd explained why he left SLED, his decision to defend what some law enforcement agencies and magistrates are calling video gambling machines, his take on national politics and his latest move: returning his one-man law firm from Rock Hill to Camden.
When Lloyd first announced his decision to resign as SLED chief, he didn’t really talk about why. It was during his last days in office that he opened up, alleging that Gov. Nikki Haley’s husband, Michael, had attempted to dictate exactly who SLED should hire and place on the family’s protective detail.
“I was coming out of the federal prosecution and judicial realms where political influence shouldn’t have an effect,” Lloyd said Tuesday. “It’s amazing how much of that (political influence) played into state law enforcement.”
He said what happened between him and Haley’s husband was “the last straw” in a series of incidents where it was obvious he and the governor did not see eye-to-eye on SLED’s mission.
“I wanted SLED to become more like the Georgia Bureau of Investigation; much more of an investigative body, but there were those who saw it more as a base of manpower. I was trying to make it more of a proactive tool,” Lloyd said.
He explained that during his tenure, SLED not only joined a federal drug trafficking task force, but actually took lead in the effort for the first time in the agency’s history. After learning that Atlanta-based drug gangs were being pushed out by Mexican cartels, Lloyd said he successfully sought to have portions of South Carolina designated as a high intensity drug trafficking area.
“Not just more money, but a lot more intelligence about and the tools to really target drug organizations,” Lloyd said.
Portions of the Midlands were included in the high intensity area, but not Kershaw County. That didn’t mean the county didn’t benefit from neighboring the area.
“Particularly with Sheriff (Jim) Matthews’ cooperation,” Lloyd said.
He said the agency also went after cases local law enforcement couldn’t. For example, SLED teamed up with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate and bring down former Lee County Sheriff E. J. Melvin. A federal judge sentenced Melvin to 17 and a half years in prison on drug conspiracy and racketeering charges in March 2011.
“I thought this was the type of thing SLED should do,” Lloyd said.
But others didn’t see things the way he did, he said.
“There was definitely an undercurrent of wanting to go back to a more reactive, ‘manpower’ agency,” Lloyd said. “We had become more proactive. Some sheriffs didn’t like it because we were coming into their territory. Sometimes they worked in cooperation with us, sometimes they didn’t.”
Then, sometime after Gov. Haley took office, Lloyd said Michael Haley “wanted us to hire specific people for the governor’s and the family’s protective detail … we tried to take it (SLED) away from that direction.”
Lloyd said Haley’s predecessor, former Gov. Mark Sanford, never interfered with SLED’s day-to-day operations the way the current governor did.
“He never even interjected himself into an investigation. Ironically, the very people who said they were opposed to the ‘good old boy’ system,” ended up advocating a return to that way of thinking, Lloyd said.
The only real problem Sanford ever caused in Lloyd’s eyes was when he left South Carolina for Argentina to be with his mistress. Even then, the former SLED chief said that had less to do with why Sanford left the state as to the problems it caused.
“The President of the United States can’t stand down the Secret Service,” Lloyd said, “but there’s no such law in South Carolina. SLED’s protection detail works at the direction of the governor.”
Lloyd said Sanford took advantage of that and left for Argentina.
Despite the ruse, Lloyd said he continued to get along with Sanford.
“I actually liked him, even after that. He bared his soul -- probably more than he needed -- but you never had to guess where he was coming from, whether you agreed or disagreed with him. He was just an interesting individual; it was fun to interact with him.”
Rock Hill, video machines and Camden
After leaving SLED, Lloyd set up a law firm in Rock Hill. His ties to that city go back to his days as a Winthrop University student. He entered the university after graduating from Camden High School in 1983. He once served on the university’s board of trustees and currently serves on the board of the Winthrop University Foundation.
“I’ve always loved that area. I didn’t want to just be another Columbia attorney and I wanted to get my name out up there,” Lloyd said.
Since doing so, his practice has actually taken him across the state from the Upstate to the Lowcountry and back to the Midlands. Now, a year later, he decided to make the “statewide” aspect of his practical official by moving the firm back to the Midlands. Specifically, he is hanging his shingle at the corner of West DeKalb and Campbell streets. The building looks like -- and once was -- a house, originally connected to historic Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy.
Lloyd said he needed access to Columbia’s federal court building, but wanted to be closer to his home near Elgin off I-20. He said he has not so much commuted from Elgin to Rock Hill as traveled wherever his cases have taken him.
“It’s been mostly federal and state criminal cases, some civil,” Lloyd said, acknowledging that it’s “a little different” from being a judge who often sentenced criminals to long prison terms. “But it’s intellectually stimulating. Everyone deserves a good defense. Hopefully, I’m bringing creativity and passion in trying to carve out the best situation for my clients.”
Among those clients are companies who manufacture video games some members of law enforcement believe are illegal -- an attempt to bring back the days of video gambling. “Video poker machines,” as they were generically categorized, were outlawed in 1999 and shut down the following July.
Lloyd said his clients’ machines are not video gambling machines and are different from machines seized here in Kershaw County earlier this year. He said what his clients offer is no different than McDonald’s Monopoly games.
“The groups I’m working with sell phone cards and office related products and utilize promotion games to sell those products,” Lloyd said. “The controversy is over the method.”
While some of the machines may utilize casino “themes,” as Lloyd put it, he said consumers don’t actually play poker or other games of chance. He went back to the McDonald’s example.
“McDonald’s gives you a (Monopoly) piece, and whether you’ve won is determined at the time the piece is given to you. It’s predetermined. It’s already printed on the piece,” he said. “In the same way, whether you’ve won our games is already determined, even if you use a casino-style theme to reveal that outcome.”
And, with today’s technology, Lloyd said it’s not so much that you are playing a machine as you are playing a game on the Internet through that device. He also said that if you walk into an establishment hosting one of his clients’ machines, you can either purchase a product -- such as a phone card -- to earn a certain number of “plays” or ask for a free play from the establishment.
“You don’t have to buy the product to play and you don’t have to play to buy the product,” he said, adding that retailers set the prizes that can be one through the games.
Because of that, Lloyd said his clients feel that games similar to those on the machines seized in Kershaw County are not legitimate.
“They are close to what the Supreme Court prohibited, but there’s a lot of confusion by law enforcement and the state legislature over what they’re exactly talking about,” Lloyd said.
He said he does not want to have that “fight” magistrate by magistrate -- something he said drew the 1990s video poker fight out far longer than it should have. He should know: in a bit of irony, Lloyd pointed out that while employed by the state attorney general’s office, he worked with then Attorney General Charlie Condon to shut down the industry.
Currently, Lloyd is representing interests in York County where some of his clients’ machines were seized. He said it is really a matter of free speech rights, including commercial speech.
“We’re working with the solicitor and attorney general’s office there on whether or not to go forward (in court) while dealing with these broader issues,” he said.
Politics and the future
As noted, Reggie Lloyd is a Republican, something different but not unheard of in African-American circles. At a time when the first African-American president is running for reelection, one cannot help wondering if Lloyd would be willing to vote for President Barack Obama or will keep to party lines and support former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Lloyd said his brand of conservatism sits mainly in the realms of national fiscal and security policy.
“National security-wise, I think Obama has done some good things in terms of continuing some of President Bush’s policies,” he said.
On the other hand, Lloyd doesn’t want a government that gets involved in a lot of personal decisions -- regardless of which party is in power.
“I think both the far left and the far right -- for different reasons -- want government involved in personal decisions,” he said, explaining that he is more middle of the road in that regard.
With that more moderate approach, Lloyd said one of his role models is Sen. Graham.
“It’s amazing … he’ll hold a position but then sit down with people from all persuasions and figure out a solution,” Lloyd said.
He also had praise for former Congressman John Spratt, a Democrat, for whom Lloyd interned years ago.
“He’s one of the smartest guys from a budget standpoint,” he said.
Lloyd said he takes a long-term view on things, whether the issue be entitlement programs, health care or the national economy. For example, Lloyd thinks it is interesting how much people look to government to create jobs.
“It (government) probably has a much smaller impact that people realize,” he said. “It’s mostly businesses that have an impact.”
Lloyd said he is most disappointed by the direction political discussion has taken in America in recent years, not only by elected officials but by the public.
“The public sends mixed messages -- ‘attack the deficit but don’t cut the budget.’ The public needs to give politicians the chance to explain their reasons for doing things. They need to listen to the arguments from the other side and incorporate the good ideas,” Lloyd said.
As a long way to answer the question of whether he would vote for Obama or Romney, Lloyd said he has never been one to vote just down party lines.
Would he run for office himself?
“I wouldn’t rule out anything, but it’s fun litigating again. I’ve always enjoyed it,” Lloyd said of bringing his law practice to Camden. “There are some national issues I might want some interplay in without necessarily taking office.
“I want to focus on making things better for the next generation,” he said, gesturing at William, “but I’m happy to be able to spend more time with him.”