In the winter after the 2010 elections, three of South Carolina’s most prominent Democratic operatives retreated to a cabin just over the North Carolina border to do some thinking and some drinking. The state’s Democrats had just been dealt a heavy blow, with Republicans winning all nine of the state’s constitutional offices.

S.C. Forward Progress co-founder Tyler Jones, political consultant Lachlan McIntosh, and S.C. Democratic Caucus Director Phil Bailey spent a weekend stewing over the loss and talking strategy, and then Jones and Bailey headed back south to resume working. McIntosh stayed behind for an extended vacation — to the extent that political operatives ever fully go on vacation. McIntosh did some poking around in Lt. Gov.-elect Ken Ard’s campaign finance reports on the State Election Commission website and realized something was screwy.

McIntosh sent his findings to Jones and Bailey, and they all decided to share it with the media. An e-mail went out to political reporters at The Post and Courier, The State, the Associated Press, and the Columbia alt-weekly Free Times: “Take a look at all of Ken Ard’s campaign expenditures since Nov. 2. It looks like he might be living off his campaign funds, which would be illegal.”

But none of the mainstream news outlets took the bait. Jones was shocked. “Something that got the lieutenant governor indicted would not even be covered by The State newspaper and The Post and Courier,” he says.

And so it came to pass that Corey Hutchins, the Statehouse reporter for the Free Times, broke the news of the biggest state political scandal of 2011. Blogger Will Folks followed suit (and went on to break the story about the North Carolina cabin meeting), and soon the mainstream media picked it up as well.

At the time, the story was about the use of roughly $25,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. But by the time Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson announced the findings of a nine-month probe into Ard’s finances last Friday, Ard’s scam had been revealed to be far more elaborate. Appearing before a judge in a Richland County court last Friday, a tearful Ard said, “I stand here humbled, apologetic, and, your Honor, there are so many people I need to apologize to … I’ll be honest, your Honor, I never in a million years imagined I’d be here.”

Late in the afternoon on Friday, Tyler Jones was exhausted. “It’s been a long day but a good day,” he said — though he added that he meant no harm to Ard personally.

“I obviously was involved in his downfall, but I’ve got no personal animosity toward this guy,” Jones said. “I don’t want the guy to go to jail, and I don’t want his family to be hurt. I just think he shouldn’t be in office.”

A previous version of this story indicated that the Democratic operatives sent their tip to the mainstream news outlets before sending it to the Free Times. Actually, all of the reporters received the tip at the same time, and Corey Hutchins was the only one to chase it down. We regret the error.