COLUMBIA — Jim Davenport, an Associated Press reporter who worked doggedly to inform people in South Carolina about what their governors, lawmakers and other powerful officials were doing with their tax money and their influence, died Monday, according to his wife, Debra. He was 54.
Davenport died after battling cancer for two years.
Davenport was a tenacious reporter. He not only was the first reporter to tell the world in 2009 that Gov. Mark Sanford had been missing for a couple of days, but he followed the story for years. Davenport revealed that Sanford used taxpayer money to upgrade himself to business or first-class on flights and use the state plane for personal trips. That led to Sanford paying a $74,000 fine, the biggest ethics penalty in state history.
During his 13 years with the AP, Davenport also revealed that the state Commerce Department used a private marketing account to pay for $1,000 chairs, a maid for the director’s Columbia apartment and alcohol for its Christmas parties. He was a tireless advocate for the state’s Freedom of Information Act, coordinating the first audit that showed how little public bodies and law enforcement agencies understood about the public’s right to know.
“Jim’s reporting was always clear-eyed, his main question ‘What are these folks doing on behalf of the people who put them in office?’ And that is what earned him respect. And affection,” said Kathleen Carroll, the AP’s executive editor.
He was at the Statehouse during some of the most dramatic periods of modern South Carolina history and was the wire service’s main reporter on the day in July 2000 when both the Confederate flag was taken down and the state banned video gambling.
“Jim Davenport was the epitome of the thorough beat reporter, a man who cultivated sources because those he covered respected his ethics, his compassion, his tireless work ethic and his desire to hold those in power accountable for their actions. His enthusiasm and curiosity were boundless, matched only by his love for his family and his strength of character,” said Evan Berland, Davenport’s news editor during the Sanford scandal and now AP’s deputy editor in the East Region. “Those who worked with Jim are the better for it.”
Davenport worked long hours, but his bosses knew he needed to leave on time when his daughter, Catherine, was performing on stage. His wife, Debra, said her husband loved his only child so much he wouldn’t even take his tie off before he was romping around the room with her when she was little.
Before entering journalism, he drove a barge for a dredging operation, worked as a roadie for a band and made tires at a factory. He also had a master’s degree in English. The journalism bug bit him while he was at the University of South Carolina.
In October, Davenport’s health kept him from attending a gathering planned in his honor by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. So the governor came to his house instead.
She stayed and visited with Davenport for an hour, awarding him the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor. She said she respected Davenport, even when he pointed out her problems, like repeating a claim that half the people applying for jobs at the Savannah River Site nuclear complex failed drug tests. The actual number was less than 1 percent.
The governor said Davenport did his homework before talking to her and often knew more than she did. In a statement Monday, Haley praised him for his fairness, integrity and hard work.
“While we will miss Jim at the Statehouse, on the campaign trail and any place news is made, we know his legacy – not just as a great reporter but as a devoted husband, father and friend – will outlast those of us who were privileged enough to work with him. And our entire state will be better for that,” Haley said.
After a stint at The State in Columbia, Davenport joined the AP’s South Carolina bureau 13 years ago and quickly became an institution in the state. Perhaps no story better showed off his talents than the Sanford saga.
It started with a tip in June 2009 that Sanford hadn’t been in his office for several days. Davenport was first to report the governor’s disappearance and that the governor’s staff had not been in contact with him either. They suggested he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. A few hours later, Davenport was the only reporter to talk to first lady Jenny Sanford, who didn’t know where he was either, and said the governor hadn’t talked to his sons on Father’s Day.
The governor’s revelation a few days later that he was in Argentina seeing his lover made worldwide news. But that wasn’t the end of the story for Davenport. He, like many other reporters, wondered if the governor used taxpayer money or resources for the affair. Although that proved not to be the case, Davenport followed that thread to an even bigger scoop.
Poring through the governor’s calendar, the flight records of state airplanes and other documents, Davenport learned Sanford used the state airplane to fly him to vacations, dentist appointments and a birthday party of a campaign donor. The records also showed the governor took flights in private planes to places like the Bahamas and did not disclose the travel in violation of ethics laws.
Sanford vigorously denied doing anything wrong, but eventually pleaded no contest to 37 ethics violations. The famously frugal governor had to pay a $74,000 fine and $36,498 to cover the costs of the investigation.
Despite his aggressive reporting, Davenport was highly regarded by the public officials he covered.
In March 2012, the South Carolina Senate honored Davenport with a resolution, introduced by Sen. John Land, who was wrapping up his 37th and final year in the Legislature.
“I never noticed whether Jim had an agenda,” Land said. “He reported it fair, whether you liked it or not.”
After the resolution was unanimously adopted, every senator came by to shake Davenport’s hand, offering words of thanks and encouragement.
Six weeks later, the House also honored Davenport. Members recalled his deep intelligence and love for his state.
“Society is better when we have journalists who are smart people,” Rep. Rick Quinn told Davenport, as he sat in the balcony, looking just a touch uncomfortable from all the attention. “South Carolina has been a better place because of your service.”
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