The South Carolina Democratic Party Has a Cocaine (Trafficking) Problem

May 2, 2022

In the last three years, political operative Jason Belton joined a billionaire Democrat's presidential campaign, became a campaign manager for a U.S. Senate race, and won election to a South Carolina Democratic Party leadership position—all while under federal indictment for trafficking nearly nine pounds of cocaine.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Belton and a co-conspirator in February 2017 contacted a drug source in California to request large quantities of cocaine, which they planned to distribute out of Columbia, S.C. Days later, the indictment states, Belton accepted a package containing four kilograms of coke from San Bernardino drug dealer Estevan Ortiz, who is also known as "Stevie," "Wonder," and "Little Man."

Federal agents went on to arrest Belton in South Carolina in January 2018. As the case progressed, however, Belton became implicated in a nationwide drug trafficking ring that federal authorities busted in 2020 following a three-year investigation. Belton's California connects were caught with 77 kilograms of cocaine, 9 kilograms of heroin, 150 pounds of methamphetamine, 989 fentanyl pills, 19 guns, and nearly $2 million in cash, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a January 2020 press release. Following the bust, federal prosecutors moved Belton's case to the Golden State, where it remains active.

But Belton's apparent criminality has done little to deter his career—in fact, the operative's political sphere expanded significantly after his arrest. In August 2019, Belton joined liberal billionaire Tom Steyer's presidential campaign as its deputy political director, a gig that earned him more than $40,000 over a six-months period. After Steyer left the race in February 2020, Belton cofounded a political consulting firm, C&J Consulting, which boasts at least one client: Democratic South Carolina state legislator Krystle Matthews, who is challenging Republican senator Tim Scott. Belton, who in January was elected the third chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party Black Caucus, has described himself as Matthews's campaign manager.

Belton's political work did overlap with his criminal indictment in one instance. In March 2020, Belton successfully persuaded the court to remove his GPS ankle monitor because he said it interfered with his work as a "lobbyist."

"Belton now wishes to eliminate the GPS location monitoring condition which requires him to wear an electronic ankle bracelet," Belton's attorney wrote in a court filing. "Belton has advised me that he is a lobbyist and the electronic ankle bracelet presents a problem for him with security on his frequent entries into the State House in Columbia, South Carolina."

Belton and the South Carolina Democratic Party did not return requests for comment.

In addition to his affiliation with Steyer and Matthews, Belton has worked with an array of prominent South Carolina Democrats through his state party leadership role. Gubernatorial candidates Joe Cunningham and Mia McLeod attended the South Carolina Democratic Party Black Caucus's "Sunday Dinner" event in March, as did former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. Belton's self-described "grassroots political action" nonprofit, Vision Walkers, also provided security for House majority whip Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.) during an August 2020 event in Columbia.

Due to the size and complexity of Belton's federal drug case—the indictment lists 23 additional defendants—the operative's trial has been delayed on at least four occasions as attorneys sort through evidence. Belton is scheduled to travel to California for trial in August, just two months after Matthews will face off against two opponents in South Carolina's Democratic Senate primary election. He won't have to worry about covering the travel costs, however. In March 2021, the court granted a request from Belton's attorney that orders the U.S. Marshals Service to "furnish defendant Jason Donnell Belton with air fare, lodging, and per diem subsistence expenses in connection with the trial of this case."

Belton's 2018 arrest was not his first significant run-in with law enforcement. In 2007, local police arrested Belton over his involvement in a drive-by shooting. Belton, who was 19 at the time, received six months' probation for "criminal conspiracy," court records show.

But the political operative's criminal history and active legal battle are not the only sources of controversy for South Carolina Democrats. Belton's business partner, fellow C&J Consulting and Vision Walkers cofounder Craig Khanwell, is a longtime follower of anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has compared Jews to termites. Khanwell—who serves as South Carolina Democratic Party Black Caucus second chair—has referred to Farrakhan as his father figure, praised Farrakhan as "the epitome of the greatest among men," and argued that accusations of anti-Semitism are merely "a trick" to "stifle legitimate criticism of Jews and Zionist Israel."

Khanwell has also espoused extreme anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. In one Instagram post, he said taking the vaccine would mean giving Bill Gates, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and other "white" men "control of my molecular information." In another post, Khanwell shared a TikTok that called COVID the "biggest hoax of America" and speculated that those who died from the virus may have actually died from the flu. In June 2021, the South Carolina Democratic Party blamed Republicans for the state's "extremely low vaccination rates."