MYRTLE BEACH — Former South Carolina congressman John W. Jenrette Jr., a colorful figure who was caught in the FBI Abscam sting of the late 1970s but arose in politics as a voice of the poor rural Pee Dee, has passed.
He was 86 and had been in declining health for the last couple years.
Jenerette, a Democrat, represented the Grand Strand and the Pee Dee from 1974 to 1980 where he was considered a rising liberal star carried into office by appealing to the emerging power of Black voters, a fact not lost upon friends.
“John’s humble beginnings in rural South Carolina filled him with a passion to help the powerless, and his outsized charm enabled him to enter the halls of power,” U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said in a statement released by a Jenrette family friend March 18.
“His style and wit earned a place in the colorful, and sometimes controversial, political history of South Carolina,” Clyburn added. “My thoughts are with his wife, Rosemary, during this difficult time.”
It was the FBI Abscam sting and subsequent bribery conviction that he would be his downfall.
The corruption case involved a middleman approaching a public official with word that a fictitious Arab sheik named Abdul was interested in making a large investment in the United States, but only in exchange for assistance immigrating to the country.
Politicians were trapped and indicted if they accepted money in exchange for immigration assistance. The effort resulted in 12 convictions, mostly of congressmen and local officials from the Philadelphia area. Jenrette was convicted for accepting a $50,000 bribe.
He was famously heard on video tape telling an undercover FBI agent “I’ve got larceny in my heart,” according to accounts of the case.
“I made some mistakes but I lived a great life,” Jenrette told The Post and Courier in 2017 around the time a book about his congressional life was being published.
“I’ve been blessed. I’ve been around the world and done things I never even thought I could do,” he added.
The book, “Capitol Steps and Missteps: The Wild, Improbable Ride of Congressman John Jenrette,” was written by John Clark and Cookie Miller VanSice, both former aides. It also mentions Jenerette’s second wife, Rita, a colorful figure of her own. The couple divorced in 1981 after his conviction.
In the immediate aftermath of the episode, Rita Jenrette wrote tell-all articles and a memoir that detailed her husband’s infidelity. She also posed nude in “Playboy.”
Following his 13-month prison sentence, he took on various ventures that included advocating for tobacco, marketing an experimental balloon-operated flotation device; running (and then folding) a national chain of timeshares; breeding horses in Bulgaria; and selling cigarettes in Eastern Europe immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In The Post and Courier article, Jenrette was described as growing up so poor in rural Horry County that he didn’t know what an indoor toilet looked like until he was 7 years old.
He was able to attend Wofford College on a partial athletic scholarship, and later, law school at the University of South Carolina. As a young lawyer in the area that later became North Myrtle Beach, he would sometimes accept sweet potatoes and oysters as payment from hard-up clients.
After he won a seat in the General Assembly, his law practice gained more prominence and financial stability. He spent eight years as a state representative in Columbia before being elected to his first of three terms in the U.S. Congress. Jenrette was a rising star among a class of freshmen ushered in by the Watergate scandal, serving as the first-ever freshman whip, and had his eye on a top spot in congressional leadership.
Friends described the death as a loss of a Pee Dee advocate.
“I have the fondest memories of my long friendship with John Jenrette,” said Sally Howard, former chair of the Horry County Democratic Party. ” He was a brilliant political mind and accomplished so much for the constituents of his district. Horry Democrats loved him.”
Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.