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Ethics meeting set the stage for Lt. Gov. Ard to resign

Some Republican lawmakers say they knew in July that Lt. Gov. Ken Ard either would be removed from the state's No. 2-ranking office or would resign. July was when a State Ethics Commission investigation found the former lieutenant governor had misled investigators about using campaign cash to buy personal items, including iPads and a cellphone plan.

That prediction came true Friday, as Ard, a Republican from Florence, entered a guilty plea to criminal election law violations and was sentenced to five years probation, a fine and community service.

For the months in between, however, many of the state's political leaders were in the dark as to what was going on as the State Grand Jury considered Ard's fate.

However, there were clues:

Witnesses appeared before that jury, and afterward told others what they had been asked to testify about.

The calling of witnesses stopped.

Finally, state Attorney General Alan Wilson met secretly Thursday with the Legislature's two top officers.

The accusations that have dogged Ard for months also have dogged state senators, who anticipated a major political shakeup if Ard were to lose his post.

If Ard, a Florence Republican, stepped down and was succeeded by Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, senators would have to elect a new Senate leader, who would have major sway over what legislation is passed and would oversee a politically charged reshuffling of state Senate committee assignments. And all during an election year, when every member of the General Assembly is running and the public is watching closely.

Some lawmakers say they were clueless about what was happening behind the scenes. Others - of the dozen lawmakers and Statehouse sources that The State newspaper interviewed - say they kept tabs on the Grand Jury's progress through witnesses, who were allowed to speak with people not involved in the case. Still others relied on rumors making their way around the Capitol.

Some - including state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington - say it was clear that Ard's days were numbered from the State Ethics Commission ruling in July. "In my mind, when I read that (ruling), I knew he was in serious trouble, that he probably wasn't going to stay in the job," said Quinn, a longtime friend of Wilson, who sent Ard's case to the jury, and the son of Republican political consultant Richard Quinn, who advises Wilson and soon-to-be Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican.

Quinn said Friday that Wilson was tight-lipped throughout the investigation, never speaking about it to him or anyone else he knows of. "But I've been around long enough. And if you read (the ruling), Ard admitted to perjury," Quinn said. "It was a foregone conclusion he was in serious trouble from the start."

'Knew it was coming'

Before the drama of the past few days - including speculation about Ard's resignation and who would become lieutenant governor - there was silence. Months of silence followed Wilson's decision to send Ard's case to the Grand Jury. Buzz did not begin to build until a couple of weeks ago. Witnesses who were supposed to testify before the Grand Jury were not being called - signaling that a plea agreement between Ard and the state likely had been reached.

And, in private, one-on-one conversations with some state senators, Ard implied that the end was near. "Several of us sort of knew it was coming, although I don't think any of us knew exactly when," said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who, in the Senate reshuffling, replaces McConnell as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the Senate's most influential committee. "We had gotten the impression even from the lieutenant governor in what little bit he had said to a few individuals. He was having a tough time with all of this and struggling. And we knew that process had to be coming to an end because it had been going on for so long."

'What is the holdup?'

The fact that the jury investigation took almost nine months raised questions among Democrats, the Senate's minority party. Two weeks ago, state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, took to the Senate floor to call on Wilson, who is a Republican, to finish the investigation for Ard's sake and the state's. "I kept wondering, 'What is the holdup? Why is this taking so long? And is it being done for political reasons?' " Hutto said. "I can't say at this point if that happened or not."

Hutto said he was suspicious of the investigation dragging out until only days remained before filing for state offices begins on Friday. "Maybe it just took that long for the investigation to wrap up, and that's fine if that's the case. But it's raised some red flags for me," he said.

The state Attorney General's Office said Friday that politics had nothing to do with the investigation's timing.

Tuesday, state senators will reconvene in Columbia to elect a new Senate president pro tempore.

If McConnell seeks to reclaim his Senate seat, whoever wins Tuesday's election could be South Carolina's next lieutenant governor.