His boss helped start SC’s biggest political scandal. Now, this reporter is covering it

The Nerve's investigative reporter Rick Brundrett writes with rage--but plays it straight

COLUMBIA, SC — Tuesday, May 13 was what you might call a busy news day for Statehouse reporters in South Carolina.

In an unprecedented ruling the evening before, a judge in Columbia had told the state’s Republican attorney general, Alan Wilson, to shut down a grand jury investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a fellow Republican and arguably the Palmetto State’s most powerful politician. Now the AG was vowing to appeal the judge’s order and continue investigating a complaint into whether the Speaker had abused his power and used campaign donations for personal expenses. The Speaker was firing back, accusing the state’s top prosecutor of defying and ignoring the law himself by keeping up the probe.

It was fast-paced, consequential stuff, offering all the makings of good copy and compelling TV. But for one reporter in the state’s capital that morning, the unfolding events were particularly riveting.

“It’s no fun if we’re not in the fight,” said Rick Brundrett, editor of The Nerve, an online investigative newsroom, as he climbed the stairs to his second-floor corner office in a little brick house a few blocks from the copper-domed Statehouse.

His comment was laced with irony. By nearly all accounts, Brundrett, 51, is an old-school straight news reporter who spent 23 years working for traditional daily papers in Michigan and South Carolina, where he covered cops and courts. But since 2009 he’s been on the Statehouse beat for The Nerve, a news startup that operates out of the nonprofit South Carolina Policy Council—a controversial libertarian-leaning think tank that doesn’t disclose its donors. The affiliation has caused Brundrett to lose friends and longtime sources.

It has also created some unusual media dynamics, reflecting the increasing prominence of organizations that shape the news but also report it. Consider this disclosure to readers 13 paragraphs into Brundrett’s May 12 piece on the judge’s ruling:

The South Carolina Policy Council—the parent organization of The Nerve—in February 2013 submitted a public-corruption complaint against Harrell to Wilson, who referred it to SLED [the state police agency]. After a 10-month investigation, SLED submitted its report to Wilson, who announced in January that the case had been referred to the state grand jury, a division of the Attorney General’s Office, for further investigation.

In other words: It was a formal complaint filed by Brundrett’s boss, Policy Council president Ashley Landess, that kicked off the investigation behind the biggest story in state politics. “In the fight,” indeed.

The twists and turns of the Harrell-Wilson drama have been serious catnip for anyone who follows Southern politics. So far, in-state media have done a solid job reporting on the story, explaining its implications to readers and shining some necessary light into dark places. Brundrett has been right on the case, breaking some stories and tracking the latest developments of the investigation.

But when we met on Tuesday, I wondered about a different angle: What it’s like to be part of this newish breed of think tank journalists—one who is, in this case, in the eye of the storm, because of his boss’s role?

“It’s an interesting situation,” Brundrett acknowledged, though, he’s quick to add, “normally I’m not in this position.”

“The Nerve is not the propaganda arm of the Policy Council. We are a news site, so I’m covering it as a news story,” he continued. “But, that being said, I can’t ignore that our parent organization is the one that initiated this and I can’t ignore statements that have been made public by our president. I can’t ignore documents that were filed by the parent organization. I wouldn’t do that if I were a mainstream journalist, and I’m not going to do it here … I’m in, quote, ‘the alternative media’ world now, but I’m still doing what I consider to be traditional journalism and following traditional journalism practices.”

That’s an accurate description of his work, according to those have followed his writing through the years. And, though I wrote a pretty critical piece about the Policy Council shortly after it launched The Nerve a few years ago, it’s one I agree with. While I didn’t say so explicitly then, I worried, like others, that The Nerve and its writers would become weaponized journalistic functionaries of its parent organization. I’ve since come around. Brundrett’s copy can sometimes take a prosecutorial tone, but he plays it straight.

“He seems to be still following the same sort of rules that we do in mainstream journalism,” says Cindi Scoppe, the opinion page editor of The State, Columbia’s daily paper, where Brundrett worked from 1998 to 2009. If there’s an ideological bent to his work, she says, it’s in his selection of stories: The Policy Council, which crusades for ethics reform and seeks to reduce the legislature’s power, is clearly invested in the Harrell investigation, and The Nerve has been all over it. But that’s not much different from Scoppe’s own approach as a columnist—and the story is one that any journalist focused on how power is exercised here would grab on to.

As Scoppe told me about the Harrell-Wilson duel, “Frankly, if you tell any good reporter ‘Go look at this,’ and you’re Ashley Landess, you’re going to be happy with what they come up with.”

‘Doesn’t look like a newsroom’

By the summer of 2009, Brundrett had developed a reputation as a journalist who could write investigative pieces and was passionate about certain issues, like the diversity of the state’s judiciary. But it was a tough time for reporters at newspapers everywhere. The Great Recession was in full swing, and he and other reporters at The State had taken a 5 percent pay cut and been put on weeklong furloughs. The summer before, Brundrett had declined a buyout, risking a layoff. A few months later, the cuts just missed him—he was at his father-in-law’s funeral when he got word the paper had laid off nine people, including his immediate supervisor.

It was around that time that he heard someone named Ashley Landess wanted to talk to him about a reporter position.

“I’d never heard of the Policy Council, I had very little idea what a think tank was,” he says now. He dug into The State’s archives to see if he’d ever even written about the organization. He hadn’t. When he went to talk with Landess, he thought he had wandered into the wrong building. “This doesn’t look like a newsroom at all,” he recalls thinking. “It looks like a little two-story brick house, that’s it.”

For years, that little brick house had a reputation as something like an appendage to the state Republican Party, and later as a kind of policy brain to the administration of then-Gov. Mark Sanford. Its board was sprinkled with GOP insiders. The Senate Republican Caucus rented space upstairs. But after taking over as president in 2008, Landess shifted the focus of the Policy Council, bringing the group more in line with the tea party movement, challenging the entrenched GOP leadership, and alienating powerful people in the Statehouse. The brick house is no longer a hangout for the Republican elite.

Around the time Landess approached Brundrett, the Policy Council was also one of many state-based libertarian think tanks looking to start producing journalism that would help spread their values. (CJR’s Anna Clark wrote about another of these think tanks, Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, last year.) Brundrett remembers Landess’s pitch to him about the new job.

“She turned her computer screen around and showed me a prototype of The Nerve and I just fell in love with it right there,” he says. “I could just see the potential of her vision, and she was just looking for somebody, some soldier to carry out the battle … What Ashley was offering me here was to do [investigative reporting] all the time in the biggest sandbox in the state, the Statehouse. I couldn’t resist something like that.”

He took the job. Some colleagues asked if he knew what he was getting into. He did, he told them.

Writing with rage

Four years after taking the job, Brundrett doesn’t see himself a mercenary with a pen—even if others, particularly lawmakers he’s reported on or exposed, do.

“I tell people I’m an investigative reporter,” he says. “I don’t investigate everything.” What makes his list? Government waste, abuse of power, public officials with conflicts of interest, that sort of thing. Lately, he’s been dogging the state’s Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, for potential open-meetings violations, and spotlighting state lawmakers who pocket checks from the counties they represent.

“I will investigate things that government does that interfere with free markets,” he told me. “These are the things that the Policy Council, as an organization, cares about.”

As Brundrett tells it, there are two types of reporters—those who tell the stories of the day, and those who uncover wrongdoing in hopes they can make their community better. He sees himself as the latter. And if some readers believe he takes a prosecutorial tone sometimes, he won’t object, he says with a smile. He has a motto. WWR: Write with rage.

It’s because of that, coupled with the baggage of the Policy Council, that some sources and lawmakers won’t return his calls, even those he had good relationships with as an MSM scribe. He tries not to let it get to him. Some have come around in recent years. Others haven’t.

Bill Taylor, a Republican member of the S.C. House, is a former reporter who worked in the journalism business for four decades—his first TV broadcast was in 1965, in black and white. I asked him what he thought about The Nerve in the context of the big story about the House Speaker and everything else. He grudgingly agreed to discuss it on the record, but not without first saying I’d dragged him into something he didn’t really want to get into.

As the subject of Brundrett’s reporting, Taylor has no complaint. “The five or six stories he’s done with and about me have been absolutely straightaway dead-on factually correct with no twist one way or another,” he tells me. But he’s no fan of the Policy Council’s new direction, and though he read the site at first, he dropped it from his general news consumption years ago. He found the think tank’s attitude toward state government seeping through the coverage. “When I read The Nerve everyday I felt like I was going to work with criminals,” Taylor says. “That we were just terrible, bad people. At some point you just quit reading that stuff. That’s the reason why I quit. It absolutely contaminated my thinking. It was the sort of daily pounding of why we’re bad people.”

Some who do read The Nerve don’t care much about its parent group.

“I am aware of the Policy Council affiliation,” says Doug Fisher who teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and was news editor for The Associated Press here from 1992 to 2001. “From what I can tell, and knowing Rick as well when he was at The State, he’s played it pretty straight. I really haven’t found any problems in that area. I haven’t found it biased as much as I’ve found it to be a bit too attack mode, which maybe opens it up to criticism that really shouldn’t be there. Someone could make them the issue, rather than the issue that should be the issue. But I don’t see that a lot.”

The news organization serves a useful purpose in the state’s diminished media landscape, Fisher said, and he wishes more people paid attention to it. (Among South Carolina politics sites, The Nerve is much less widely read than the more tabloid-y FITSNews.) He also wishes more media outlets tried to match some of its reporting. “I really enjoy how they put the legislature’s feet to the fire,” he says. “The more the merrier.”

Despite its affiliation with the Policy Council, The Nerve has partnered with traditional TV media on investigative stories, such as a 2012 piece on use of the state plane that was a collaboration with WLTX, Columbia’s CBS affiliate. Some of its reporting has also appeared in community newspapers throughout the state.

South Carolina’s unusual politics also means that the Policy Council often has allies—and Brundrett has sympathetic readers—from other points on the spectrum. Landess’s formal complaint against Harrell was actually part of a coalition effort that included the more traditionally good-government group Common Cause, whose state chapter director, John Crangle, has been a consistent source for Brundrett.

Crangle, who has been active in South Carolina for decades, remembers the days when the big daily papers had county bureaus and several reporters crawling all over the Statehouse and state agencies, the days when TV stations had four beat reporters covering the legislature. The political media landscape is a skeleton of what it once was.

“So I think that whoever wants to cover state government is a welcome figure, in my opinion,” Crangle says. “There’s a void there that they’re filling. There’s certainly a need for other journalists, especially investigative journalists, that will do serious work, oftentimes adversarial-type reporting … There’s a congruity between the interests of the Policy Council and the kinds of work [Brundrett] is well equipped to do.”

‘What they’re doing’

Back in his office, Brundrett is kind of wiped out. He’d posted a 2,300-word piece on the judge’s ruling on the House Speaker investigation shortly before 10 pm the night before, and the story is bound to get hotter. The Policy Council’s role isn’t going away, either. Harrell has long said he thinks Landess filed the complaint against him because she’s bitter he took her off a state panel, a charge she calls ridiculous.

However close to the fight he is, Brundrett hopes readers judge him for his work, not his affiliations. And while it’s not for everyone, and doesn’t try to do everything, his work holds up.

Besides, when it comes to politicians, he has a non-discrimination policy.

“I hate all politicians equally,” he says. “So it doesn’t matter to me who’s in office, it matters what they’re doing.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com. Tags: , , , ,