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 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 used 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 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.