Scandal reveals two sides to Ravenel

COLUMBIA -- State Treasurer Thomas Ravenel squeezed through the crowd of party faithful, presidential hopefuls and elected officials, then began to weave and lurch as he made his way across the floor of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

It was the GOP's annual Silver Elephant dinner in May, and Ravenel, amid a thousand-plus fellow Republicans, was staggering like movie pirate Capt. Jack Sparrow, with his comically uneven walk.

Eventually, a woman grabbed Ravenel and led him from the convention center floor.

Later that week, at the state GOP convention, party chairman Katon Dawson steered a visibly irked Ravenel away from the microphone after his uncomfortably long gush about presidential contender Rudolph Giuliani, whose state campaign Ravenel was heading.

These scenes were signs, some now say, of what could be the unraveling of a scion of one of Charleston's most politically prominent families.

Ravenel was indicted last week on a federal charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute less than 500 grams of cocaine. Now suspended from office, Ravenel is in a very public free fall, tied to how he has lived his private life.

If the charges prove to be true, Ravenel's fall from grace could be among the most jaw-dropping in South Carolina political history.

Ravenel in recent months wasn't acting like someone who knew he was about to be indicted as part of a long-running state and FBI undercover drug investigation.

"I've heard rumors about Thomas Ravenel for several years -- drugs, liquor, women, wild living," said John Crangle, president of Common Cause of South Carolina. Crangle was one of at least 10 people who said they had heard stories about Ravenel; the rest declined to go on the record.

The public man

Until now, Ravenel has been defined by his public image of:

• The rising political star. Last year, without ever having held high public office, he beat incumbent Treasurer Grady Patterson and hopefuls Sen. Greg Ryberg and former state House Majority Leader Rick Quinn.

• The descendant of a prominent state political family that traces its roots to the 1600s and one of the nation's largest rice plantations.

• The handsome, vigorous, 44-year-old multimillionaire who has been a hefty contributor to state and national Republican candidates.

• A member of tightly knit insider groups that can mobilize quickly for fundraising and political purposes. These include Citadel graduates and a Charleston chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Despite that lineup of assets, a buzz about a second side to Ravenel has persisted for years.

And in the wake of the indictment, even the most seasoned political observers are shocked.

"I don't remember anything of this sort happening since I've lived here, or that I have read about in my research in state politics," said longtime political commentator Neal Thigpen.

A second side

Contrasted with Ravenel's public embrace of family values, there was his personal life -- not disreputable, but not traditional in an oh-so-traditional state.

Ravenel married in late 1995 and separated from his wife, Mary Ryan Ravenel, 13 months later. In 1998, they were divorced, according to Charleston County records.

In 2001, Ravenel, then 38, applied for a marriage license with Candace Yearwood, 30. They didn't marry, according to that license.

Then there was the fine involving his failure to properly report his personal spending to federal officials during his 2004 U.S. Senate bid.

In October 2006, the Federal Election Commission fined Ravenel $19,500 for the irregularities.

The two Ravenels

The private and public images of Ravenel have now clashed with the very public filing of drug charges.

Federal officials say he didn't sell the cocaine but shared it with friends and acquaintances. Neither does the indictment allege Ravenel's cocaine activities had anything to do with the treasurer's office.

U.S. Attorney Reggie Lloyd declined comment on the specifics of the evidence, saying details will come in time.

Ravenel is slated to be arraigned July 9 in federal court in Columbia.

John O'Connor and Aaron Shenin, staff writers for The State, contributed.