Ron Wilson applauds during the opening ceremonies of the Sons of Confederate Veterans conference on July 22, 2010, at the Civic Center of Anderson, South Carolina. At this point, Wilson was almost a decade into his $57M ponzi scheme. Image via IndependentMail.com.
A couple of weeks ago Ron Wilson, former National Commander-in-Chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was sentenced to more than 19 years in the federal penitentiary for running a $57 million ponzi scheme. The sentence of 235 months was at the top of a range recommended by a pre-sentencing report filed with the court.
This story hasn’t made many national headlines, but it should rightly shake the Confederate Heritage™ movement to its foundations. Ron Wilson was one of the hard-liners that came to prominence within the SCV in the early 2000s, bent on a more aggressive, politically-engaged course for the group, which echoes right down to the present. In fact, Wilson led the charge and , once in office, ruled with an iron fist, purging moderate members and even entire camps from the organization. The ascension of Wilson and like-minded partisans led to a split within the organization and the founding of a separate group called Save the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Ponzi schemes invariably rely on personal relationships, shared interests and trust to be successful. That was true of Bernie Madoff, it was true of R. Allen Stanford, and it was true of Ron Wilson. In Wilson’s case, a big part of his personal connections were through Confederate heritage groups. Wilson was so wrapped up in Civil War heritage issues that he made it part of his sale pitch to separate people from their life savings:
[Former South Carolina State Representative Dan] Cooper never invested with Wilson. “I never had any money to invest,” he said. Cooper attended a meeting in Greenville in 1992 at which Wilson pitched people on investing in silver. The pitch changed little in the 20 years between then and Wilson’s last meeting in March, before state officials made public their accusations that his business was a fraud. “He talked about how the value of the dollar was unpredictable, not backed by gold,” Cooper said. Recent investors say they often heard Wilson describe how a $20 gold piece bought a fine suit in the 1860s, just as it would today despite the increase in price of the suit, because of the increase in the value of precious metals.
Wilson made money, too, through the sales of books, including some particularly rancid titles. But he didn’t just sell them; he endorsed them, too:
One controversial book was “Barbarians Inside the Gate” by a discredited 1960s Defense Department official. The book is rife with anti-Semitic language and quotes frequently from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which claims to expose a Jewish plot to take over the world. Wilson promoted the book by saying on his website: “The author reveals concealed codes and goals that might be extracted from the Protocols of Zion. I thought long and hard about handling this book. I will not back away from the truth in this book. You MUST READ THIS BOOK for yourself.”
Wilson was a major player in local politics in Anderson County, and donated heavily to other candidates. He didn’t seem too concerned about the particulars of the laws concerning such contributions, so long as he backed a winner:
After the March 31 election, Putnam won a runoff against Hamp Johnson. “Ron was always the kind of guy who gave money to whomever looked like was going to win,” Putnam said. “He came to me. I never met with Ron. He wanted to give $1,000 of his personal money.” For the runoff, Putnam said Wilson offered $4,000. “In election laws, you can only give up to $1,000 per individual,” Putnam said. “We turned that down because we didn’t want to take that much money from one person.” Records with the South Carolina Ethics Commission show that several Anderson County politicians received donations from Ron Wilson as well as businesses he owns. These businesses — Atlantic Bullion & Coin in Easley and International Commerce Corp. in Greenville — both list Ron G. Wilson as the registered agent, according to South Carolina Secretary of State records.
Even so, some South Carolina Republicans couldn’t stand him, one blogger referring to Wilson as being “more fascist than Republican.” (Be sure to check out the comments for threats to the blogger posted by Wilson’s supporters — classy folks.) Wilson remained prominent in local Confederate heritage circles, andapparently hawked his dubious investments among his butternut friends. Wilson has a history of skeevy business dealings dating back to his tenure as a local elected official, some of which involved steering favors to his SCV buddies. As far back as 1996, Wilson had been given a cease-and-desist order by the State of South Carolina to stop dealing in securities. But that order was not made public, so Wilson simply ignored it. He continued operating his precious metals business, albeit more quietly than before. He slipped under the radar of state regulators and the SEC for the next fifteen years.
Over the last decade, Wilson seems to have been particularly close to the odious Kirk Lyons and his Southern Legal Resource Center. Wilson and Lyons organized a big Confederate flag rally in South Carolina in 2000, and not long afterward Wilson was added to the board of Lyons’ SLRC. Wilson helped Lyons get elected to the SCV board in August 2000, and the next year Lyons hired Wilson’s daughter to work as a case manager at the SLRC. Even after his tenure as Commander-in-Chief, Wilson continued to hold senior positions in the group, including as “Director of Field Operations.” In 2008 he shared the dais with current SCV C-in-C Michael Givens, where they were both received the organization’s Commander-in-Chief ‘s Award (PDF).
Of course, Confederate activist/performance artist/beard H. K. Edgerton (right, with Wilson’s grandkids in 2004, via Lyons’ SLRC website), thinks Wilson is just a fantastic guy. When Wilson was appointed to the South Carolina Board of Education a few years ago and critics pointed out his ties to groups like the the Council of Conservative Citizens and the white nationalist League of the South, Edgerton jumped his defense, saying that “black students and parents do not have a better friend in South Carolina that Rob [sic.] G. Wilson.“
Of course, Edgerton has problems of his own when it comes to misrepresenting his business, so maybe his endorsement of Wilson is not so surprising after all.
Investigators found that Wilson’s ponzi scheme began in 2001, the year before he took over the leadership of the SCV; his criminal activity was concurrent with his tenure in that position. And he hurt a lot of people:
Dressed in a suit and tie, [Wilson] walked into the courtroom just before the sentencing hearing. He walked quietly past investors who filled many of the 18 wooden benches and who arrived more than a half hour before the court proceeding. They trickled in one or two at a time, many older and walking slowly. One wore a baseball-style hat that said “Korea Veteran.” Seven investors testified about devastating financial losses that stripped retirement and savings accounts and left them struggling to pay bills. Some said they were trying to go back to work in their 70s. “My future is dimmer than it was,” Roslyn Stoddard told Childs. Jeffrey Cavender, 59, said he convinced his 86-year-old mother to invest with Wilson. He lost his retirement savings and felt “complete emptiness” when Wilson’s business was raided by federal officials, Cavender said. He urged the judge to “put Mr. Wilson away for good.” John Brittain, 76, said more than money was involved for investors. “He stole their hopes. He stole their dreams,” Brittain said of Wilson.
Some people will undoubtedly claim that I’m unfairly criticizing folks like the SCV, Lyons, Edgerton, et al. by simple association. That would be true if (1) Wilson’s bad acts were limited and clearly an aberration from the norm, or (2) the others’ connections to Wilson were limited and superficial. Neither of those things are true.
Wilson’s brother has been quoted as saying that Ron Wilson made a “terrible mistake.” It was terrible, all right, but it wasn’t a mistake. Shoplifting a CD from a store is a mistake. Speeding when you don’t think you’ll get caught is a mistake. Getting so angry that you momentarily lose your composure and clock somebody, that’s a mistake. Cooking the books for ten years is not a mistake. Lying over and over and over to your investors for over a decade is not a mistake. Using the proceeds from your ponzi scheme to build an elegant, private compound out in the country is not a mistake. Wilson’s actions over more than a decade don’t reveal a character flaw, so much as they reveal his actual character.
The folks I’ve mentioned here are not causal acquaintances of Ron Wilson. Up until last March, when the investigation to Wilson became public, these folks were quite happy to be associated with Wilson. They embraced him publicly, personally and professionally. They did favors for him, and got favors in return. This was all concurrent with Wilson running his Ponzi scheme, as well. Until last March, when news of the investigation broke, they were happy — eager, even — to be publicly identified with Wilson.
Since then, of course, not so much. As far as I can tell, none of these folks have said anything about this publicly, and it’s not been mentioned on any of the Southron Heritage™ online discussion boards or forums I’ve seen. That’s unfortunate, because they’ve had eight months now to reflect on their close personal and professional relationships with this crook. The Southron Heritage movement used Wilson to further its goals, and it’s clear that he actively used his own prominence with the SCV and elsewhere to draw in his victims. The Southron Heritage movement was an unwitting accomplice in Wilson’s crime, and now should be doing some serious soul-searching to figure out how such a fraud rose to the pinnacle of their movement.
They won’t, of course, because they’re not interested in rooting out reprehensible characters like Wilson in the their movement. Indeed, they embrace them, and give them prestigious awards (PDF). Sure, they’ll scream bloody murder about black Confederate “deniers,” and supposedly Marxist professors, and fluff each other into a resentful outrage because someone, somewhere, sometime, torched a paper flag, but when crooks
in their own ranks leading their organization like Ron Wilson are found out by others, the noble Defenders of Southron Honour™ remain as silent as the grave.
Wilson plead guilty back in July, so barring some unexpected development, there will be no appeal. Wilson can look forward to to getting out of jail sometime in 2029 or thereabouts, when he will be around 82 years old. He’ll still owe restitution then, of course, so maybe he’ll get a greeter job at the Walmart Supercenter there in Easley. No doubt some of his very elderly former investors will be his co-workers there. I’m sure they’ll have lots to talk about.___________