Men of Honor?
Is Lasch really a friend of the Hunley?

By Michael Graham

On March 28, about the same time excited archeologists were announcing the discovery of a medicine bottle among the artifacts from the H.L. Hunley, the world’s most famous sunken sub was surfacing again in a most unusual place: The U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

There’s been a boatload of media coverage over the initial raising of the Hunley. And yet, when the Hunley appeared as exhibit A in a court hearing to expunge the criminal record of Friends of the Hunley Chairman Warren Lasch, that fact went virtually unreported. Indeed, few people in South Carolina even know that Lasch — whose name appears on the building housing the Hunley — pled guilty in 1995 to mishandling his employee pension fund.

Fewer still know that Lasch’s plea agreement forbids him from serving in any position of trust for such a fund even today. But it does not, interestingly, prevent Lasch from serving as chairman of our state’s most prominent charity, the Friends of the Hunley, a job he was given by state Senator Glenn McConnell (R-Confederate States of America).

Lasch was also McConnell’s choice to sit on the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB), where he would help oversee the spending of billions of other people’s dollars on road and bridge projects. That’s quite a responsibility for a man currently prohibited by a federal court from overseeing your 401(k) plan. McConnell withdrew Lasch’s SIB appointment after people like me started talking about his criminal record. Instead, McConnell has named a guy named Rick Tapp: Warren Lasch’s business partner and the attorney for Lasch’s Friends of the Hunley.

If the story seems odd, it is. The details — which involve promises of millions in fundraising dollars for the Hunley, followed by sweetheart business deals at the old Charleston Naval base for Lasch — are too convoluted to account here. Besides, the story may be odd, but it’s not new: virtually every daily paper and TV news department have seen the court documents or is familiar with the details. They just don’t think its news.

Perhaps a politician who appoints a white-collar criminal to oversee a charitable organization which has received more than $8 million in tax dollars isn’t news. After all, it doesn’t involve any of the cast members of Survivor.

Then again, maybe South Carolina news outlets don’t want to rub the gloss off the Hunley story, a story which truly is amazing. The people of South Carolina are duly proud of the Hunley project. It is bringing our state some half-decent publicity for a change, and nobody wants to rock the boat, especially one submerged in a tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

But it seems that somebody, somewhere ought to at least ask the obvious questions: Did McConnell know about Warren Lasch’s little “problem” before he appointed him to Friends of the Hunley? Did Lasch’s promises of big bucks for McConnell’s favorite cause help grease the skids for Lasch’s multi-million dollar business dealings with the state? Does having the Hunley project appear in federal court as part of Lasch’s self-serving expungement efforts dishonor the crew and its memory?

I would love to ask McConnell and Lasch these questions myself, but they have gone to ridiculous lengths to avoid me, to the point of having their PR flak announce that Lasch would not talk to me under any circumstances. Lasch’s attorneys even “guaranteed” me (their word) a lawsuit if I mentioned his record on my radio program, which I have since done numerous times.

However, a reporter from my radio station, WSC, did finally get McConnell to talk about the Lasch problem. After denying that he knew about Lasch’s guilty plea, McConnell asked, “As great and worthy project is, why is it your station seems to be tryin’ to stain it?” He insisted that Lasch’s infractions were merely “failing to file a piece of paper,” and insisted that linking the Hunley and Lasch’s conviction was “just outrageous in my mind. That’s just wrong!”

I happen to agree with McConnell. Any linking of the historically significant and emotionally compelling story of the Hunley to this incident of tawdry, two-bit business dealings by Warren Lasch is outrageous. It is wrong.

But I didn’t name Warren Lasch to chair Friends of the Hunley. Glenn McConnell did. I didn’t name the building housing South Carolinas treasured artifacts after Lasch. McConnell did that, too. I didn’t follow up Lasch’s generous fund-raising pledges with still-more generous offers of state ports facilities and a seat on the SIB. That was McConnell’s doing as well, an action which forever raises questions about whether the raising of the Hunley has been entwined with the raising of Lasch’s business fortunes here in South Carolina.

If, Sen. McConnell, this issue is one of honor, why is it that Warren Lasch’s legal misstep diminishes his character enough to keep him off the State Infrastructure Bank, but not enough to keep him from Friends of the Hunley?

If McConnell has any doubt that his relationship with Warren Lasch has dishonored the Hunley, he should read the transcripts from the March 28th expungement hearing. Here was Lasch, who had asked for a plea bargain to avoid prosecution on the more serious charges and who agreed in his deal not to contest the conviction, back in court trying to undue the deal in his favor. And he used the prestige of the Hunley to aid his cause, pointing out (erroneously, by the way) that “Lasch has raised most of the funds for the raising of the Hunley.”

The judge, who was following the Hunley story from Michigan, denied Lasch’s request. But just a few weeks later, Warren Lasch was back in South Carolina receiving an honorary doctorate from The Citadel, at the behest of McConnell. The punch line:
It’s a doctorate of Business Administration

                           


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