Legislative corruption and the State Grand Jury

SCPA Attorney Jay Bender
By SCPA Attorney Jay Bender

About five years ago Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council urged an investigation of then House Speaker Bobby Harrell for misconduct in office.  That investigation led to Harrell’s resignation and a guilty plea.

That investigation also led to a more widespread investigation and prosecution by First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe who had been assigned the case by Attorney General Alan Wilson because Wilson had a conflict relating to two members of the General Assembly who had been identified in the initial SLED report.  The names of the legislators had been redacted in the public version of the report causing them thereafter to be described as the “redacted legislators.”

The redacted legislators were James Merrill of Charleston and Rick Quinn, Jr. of Columbia.  Each had served as House Majority Leader, and each was ultimately charged with a number of crimes relating to the use of their position for financial gain from printing and direct mail work their firms did for the House Republican Caucus.  Each entered a guilty plea.

The investigation under Pascoe’s direction later led to indictments of Sen. John Courson of Columbia, Richard Quinn, Sr. and his firm Richard Quinn and Associates, and former representatives Tracy Edge of Horry County and James Harrison of Columbia.

The investigation was challenged by Wilson who attempted to remove Pascoe as prosecutor.  Pascoe resisted, and ultimately the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled that Wilson could not rescind Pascoe’s appointment once Wilson had recused himself because of a conflict.

Richard Quinn and Associates entered a guilty plea for illegal lobbying, and its principal Richard Quinn, Sr. avoided jail time by agreeing to cooperate with the investigation.

Harrison stood trial on charges of misconduct in office, conspiracy and perjury.  He was convicted of all but the conspiracy charge and sentenced to 18 months in prison.  The trial of Tracy Edge has not been scheduled.

The Grand Jury prepared a report and asked the presiding judge, Clifton Newman, to make the report public stating that doing so was in the public interest.

The State newspaper moved to intervene in the case to argue along with Pascoe for public release of the report.  Lawyers for Quinn and Harrison argued that the report should remain secret.  Ultimately Judge Newman ordered the report released to the public subject to certain, limited redactions requested by Quinn.

The report said Wilson had impeded the investigation for two years, and during that time the statute of limitations had run on some of the potential charges that could have been brought.  The Grand Jury report disclosed that Wilson was in regular contact with Richard Quinn, Sr. and his firm in an effort to remove Pascoe from the investigation.

At the time of the effort by Wilson to remove Pascoe, Nikki Haley was still Governor and Wilson was seeking support for a run for what was forecast to be an open governor’s seat.  The implication in the report is that Wilson was attempting to end the investigation of Merrill and Quinn to advance his political ambitions.  Wilson has vigorously denied any interference with the investigation, and has chosen to run for reelection rather than challenge Gov. Henry McMaster who was elevated to the position upon Haley’s appointment as U.N Ambassador.

The report also contains recommendations to strengthen reporting requirements for legislator income, extending the statute of limitation on criminal prosecution of lobbying violations, and for diminishing the influence of “dark money” in South Carolina campaigns.

Since SCPA is a party in a suit under the FOIA to seek access to records and meetings of the House Republican Caucus, Section 7 in the Appendix to the Grand Jury report is of particular interest.  The SLED investigation suggests that the Caucus has a history of illegal campaign contributions.

Will the report lead to legislative changes?  The most recent legislative scandal, Operation Lost Trust, led to revision of the state lobbying and legislator conduct laws, but it remains to be seen if there is political will for legislators restricting their own conduct.

View the Grand Jury report here.

Jay Bender is a retired University of South Carolina professor and media lawyer who represents the S.C. Press Association and its newspapers.

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