COLUMBIA — It happens without warning: The blue lights appear on a dark stretch of interstate and Sen. Robert Ford pulls over.

The state trooper walks up to his window, asks him if he knows he was speeding, and then whispers: Will you meet me at the next rest stop, sir?

This is how the Charleston Democrat has learned about the troubles behind the scenes at the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

Current and retired troopers say the department is run by favoritism and intimidation, that morale is low, and that all this threatens the effectiveness of the state's elite police force.

"Most of them are afraid to speak out," said Ford, who can recount incidents of being pulled over on almost every interstate in South Carolina. "A lot of it is about how they aren't being promoted. With the African-American troopers, it's often about how they are stuck out in the boondocks where they don't feel like they can do any good."

Some key lawmakers say they plan to dig into all of the Highway Patrol's secrets, with the help of subpoenas, when a new Public Safety director is nominated for confirmation.

Former troopers who spoke to The Post and Courier on Thursday said lawmakers will find that the Highway Patrol has become an empire ruled by Col. Russell Roark, a man who insulated his top ranks with friends and passed over enemies for promotions.

They said that popular troopers have been pulled off patrols and put into special teams, and that has left the rank-and-file disgruntled as they handle more of the patrol's daily grind. Department of Public Safety officials, however, said there are more troopers on the roads today than there were five years ago.

Some lawmakers think Public Safety Director James K. Schweitzer might have survived the recent controversy had he fired Roark instead of relying so heavily on him to run the show.

"I told him, 'You have some serious problems.' I told him, 'Roark is going to take you down,' " said Sen. Jake E. Knotts, R-West Columbia.

And that is what happened. After two videos were released last week that showed white troopers using racial slurs and hand- cuffing a black woman to a police cruiser, Gov. Mark Sanford announced that both Roark and Schweitzer were out. Both Roark and Schweitzer declined comment for this story.

The trooper who used the racial slur during a 2004 traffic stop in Greenwood has been reassigned to administrative duties. The trooper, whose name is being withheld by the Public Safety Department, is on personal leave. The department wouldn't say why the trooper is on leave, how long he's been out or why he was reassigned.

While two former troopers said the videos are worse than any tapes they have ever seen, they contend race is not the predominant problem with the Highway Patrol. Rather, they said, it is the pervasive good ol' boy system that controls everything.

"I don't think there's a big racist issue with the patrol," said Dan Bledsoe of Columbia, a retired first sergeant with 20 years in the patrol.

Bledsoe and Joe Kerbs, a retired patrol sergeant from Lexington with 25 years on the force, said that most issues in the Highway Patrol have little to do with race but contend the department's drug team uses racial profiling to look for drug couriers.

They recalled one black trooper, who got into a shoving match with a man while off-duty, was reprimanded while friends of Roark's who had more serious offenses — including domestic violence and burglary — had their records expunged and were promoted.

Kerbs said he was passed over for promotion more than 25 times because he was on Roark's bad side, ostensibly for competing with a Roark friend for a job. Kerbs said he had received regular promotions leading up to the time Roark took over, including bumps in 1996 and 2000.

Others said Roark disliked Kerbs because of his friendship with Knotts. Roark and Knotts are not on friendly terms.

Most people familiar with the Highway Patrol, including several lawmakers, say Schweitzer was repeatedly asked to do something about Roark and always brushed aside the criticism, saying that everything was being taken care of.

Bledsoe even went to Sanford with his concerns about troopers being allowed to live 100 miles from their patrol area, spending excessive amounts of state money on gas for the commute and adding to the already heavy wear and tear on patrol cars.

Sanford met with Schweitzer and Bledsoe last winter. Sanford press secretary Joel Sawyer said the meeting was called so that the problems would be brought to the attention of Schweitzer. Sid Gaulden, spokesman for the Public Safety Department, said Bledsoe mostly complained that Roark commuted too far to work, which Gaulden said was not the case.

Ford said he believes the departure of Roark will lead to quick improvements in the Highway Patrol, and that the Senate will move that along during the next Public Safety director's confirmation hearings.

Bledsoe and Kerbs, however, fear the infrastructure of the good ol' boy system is entrenched in the department and more trouble will follow before things get better. Earlier this week, another video surfaced that shows troopers harassing local police in Lexington County in what some lawmakers described as a turf battle.

Former troopers Bledsoe and Kerbs said they hope the Highway Patrol can learn from its troubles and improve. Years ago, each cruiser had a sticker on its odometer that said "I set an example" — and that's something for the patrol to strive to do again, they said.

"I would never want the public not to hold the Highway Patrol to a higher standard," Bledsoe said.