COLUMBIA, S.C. — Thomas Ravenel's surprise resignation Tuesday as state treasurer and his continuing treatment for an apparent drug problem are signals he won't challenge the evidence against him, say lawyers familiar with the federal system.
Both also could be strategies that would get him a lighter sentence if convicted, experts say.
"It would be safe to assume his resignation is an indication he does not plan to fight these charges," said Columbia lawyer Pete Strom, a former U.S. Attorney for South Carolina who is not involved with the case.
Reading from a short, prepared statement, Ravenel resigned immediately after his first appearance in U.S. District Court in Columbia on a charge of conspiracy to possess and distribute less than 500 grams of cocaine.
"I'm deeply disappointed in myself for the circumstances surrounding my presence here today due to the personal mistakes I've made in my life," Ravenel, 44, said after the hearing. "I believe I must resign the position of treasurer of the state of South Carolina."
Ravenel now heads to another treatment center in New Mexico. He did not express innocence or say whether he will fight the charges.
A multimillionaire developer from Charleston and son of former prominent state Sen. Arthur Ravenel, Thomas Ravenel is accused of possessing cocaine and giving it to others, though not selling it.
Exactly what the evidence is that forced Ravenel from his $92,000-a-year public office and into an $8,000-a-week Arizona treatment clinic remains a closely held secret. He has pleaded not guilty.
Ravenel's resignation continued a remarkable fall from grace for a state public official who - only six weeks ago - was a rumored contender for a U.S. Senate seat and had close ties to GOP presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani.
From a rising Republican with great expectations, Ravenel has turned into another public person with a high-profile addiction, a symbol of growing troubles in the Republican Party, and the object of jokes on national television shows.
"And you call yourself a Republican. That is not capitalism, my friend. That is welfare," said The Daily Show's Jon Stewart recently about Ravenel's alleged giving away - rather than selling - cocaine.
Ravenel's picture also made the front page of the July 16 Wall Street Journal in a story about GOP scandals in the South.
In the legal arena, Ravenel and his two lawyers are following a perfect script to win leniency from U.S. Chief District Judge Joe Anderson if he eventually pleads guilty, said criminal defense lawyer Dick Harpootlian, a former Richland County prosecutor.
"It's a textbook example," Harpootlian said Tuesday. If a defendant shows contrition and accepts responsibility, he is more likely to get less prison time or no prison at all, he said.
"Ravenel is seeking help and resigned a post that he spent a lot of time and money to win," said Harpootlian, former chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Longtime Columbia criminal defense lawyer Jack Swerling, who is not representing Ravenel, said his resignation and "continuing substance abuse treatment" show "he's taking responsibility for his actions and positioning himself to be in a better position with the government and court at sentencing."
Ravenel's charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine, though, if convicted, he likely would face a far lighter sentence given his lack of a prior record and other factors, legal observers say.
Ravenel, who is free on bail, initially was arraigned July 6 on the charge but wasn't present then because U.S. Magistrate Joseph McCrorey allowed him under court rules to attend the Sierra Tucson treatment center in Tucson, Ariz. He checked into the center three days after his June 19 indictment and was released Sunday. A not guilty plea was entered on his behalf, which remained in effect in Tuesday's hearing.
Gedney Howe of Charleston, one of Ravenel's attorneys, said afterward his client plans to leave Thursday for New Mexico. The Life Healing Center in Santa Fe, N.M., treats drug, alcohol and other addictions.
"It's just a continuation of the process of getting better," Howe said.
Ravenel's other lawyer, Bart Daniel of Charleston - a former U.S. Attorney for South Carolina - assured McCrorey that Ravenel would be back in Columbia for an Aug. 21 pretrial conference.
Ravenel is supposed to report to a federal probation officer today in Charleston and will be subject to random drug testing. Under other bail conditions, he can't break any federal, state or local laws, drink "excessive" amounts of alcohol or possess firearms. He also must surrender his passport, which his attorneys said he already has done.
Before Tuesday's hearing, Ravenel was photographed and fingerprinted at the U.S. Marshal's office in the Columbia federal courthouse, Deputy Marshal Tim Stec said. Ravenel also filled out a personal history form, which included his home and work addresses, Stec said, though he declined to comment further on specifics.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Witherspoon didn't give any new details on the case.
"I'm preparing for trial until I hear otherwise," he said after Tuesday's hearing, declining to comment whether his office is involved with any plea negotiations with Ravenel.
The U.S. Attorney's office said Tuesday it had no idea Ravenel was going to resign.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McDonald said his office has turned over evidence to Ravenel's lawyers, though he declined comment on any specifics. He said evidence is normally made public either at a trial or at a guilty plea.
Jury selection in Ravenel's case is set for Sept. 5; Anderson will be the presiding judge. watching the case
Ravenel's co-defendant, Michael Levon Miller, 25, is accused of selling cocaine to Ravenel, federal authorities said, though the amount hasn't been specified.
Like Ravenel, Miller was granted a $100,000 unsecured bond, meaning he could be released without paying any money. But he also is facing state cocaine trafficking charges and remains in the Charleston County Detention Center.
Miller is accused in a police affidavit of selling 14 grams of cocaine for $450 to an informant for the State Law Enforcement Division and Charleston police on Jan. 3, 2006, at The Courtyards on Meeting, an apartment complex in Charleston that is home to many college students.
He wasn't charged, though, until June 19, 2007, when he was presented with both state and federal charges, leading some legal observers to speculate he has cooperated with authorities in their case against Ravenel.
The difference in status and access to legal and medical treatment between Ravenel and Miller, who is an unemployed African-American, has attracted widespread attention. Efforts Tuesday to contact his federal public defender were unsuccessful.
The NAACP of South Carolina is researching the case and is "cautiously optimistic" the court system will be fair to both parties, said Lonnie Randolph, state NAACP president.
"We continue to monitor this case closely, and I mean very closely," Randolph said. He added that the state's historical tilt of locking up blacks out of proportion to their share of the population make it a natural one to watch.