The ongoing probe by special prosecutor David Pascoe into possible misconduct in the S.C. General Assembly has the potential to reveal not only bigger rivers of underground cash flowing to lawmakers, but also more deeply buried networks of possible corruption than the simple one-on-one lawmaker crimes uncovered by the FBI 27 years ago, observers say.
“Most of the bribes handed out in Lost Trust were $500, $300, $1,000 – something like that, small scale,” said longtime South Carolina government watchdog John Crangle, a lawyer who last year wrote a book detailing the 1990s vote-selling scandal that resulted in 17 lawmaker convictions. Eleven others, including six lobbyists, also were convicted.
“But in this investigation, you have one lawmaker charged with getting some $5 million, another with $1.5 million and another some $132,000,” Crangle said.
So far in the current probe that’s setting its own course through S.C. political history, one lawmaker has pleaded guilty to lining his pockets with campaign money. Three others are accused – but not convicted – of colluding with political consultants or lobbyists. And Tuesday, at least one indicted lawmaker will push in court for Pascoe to be disqualified from the probe.
In some of Pascoe’s charges, innocent-appearing businesses set up or used by lawmakers are portrayed as vehicles for receiving cash from people with business before the Legislature. Then, those businesses allegedly funnel part of that cash into lawmakers’ pockets, some indictments say.
“What you have now, allegedly, is a second-generation system for influence peddling, where money is delivered indirectly, filtered and laundered through some entity,” said John Freeman, professor emeritus of business and professional ethics at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
“Does the filtering and laundering get rid of the dirt on the money? Is it still dirty? We’ll find out,” Freeman said.
In Lost Trust, bribes were paid in cash by a rogue lobbyist-turned-informant, Ron Cobb, who agreed to work with FBI agents who had installed a hidden camera in a hotel room near the State House.
Over and over, the camera captured a smiling Cobb slathering greedy lawmakers’ outstretched hands with wads of bills. Cobb wanted a bill passed; he was lining up lawmakers’ votes.
In the case of the three lawmakers indicted by Pascoe since December, consulting or marketing entities played a key role in the alleged redirecting of money:
▪ Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, indicted in December on misconduct and ethics violations charges, is alleged to have violated laws connected to more than $1 million in payments to his company, Geechie Communications, from groups that do businesses before the General Assembly. These groups include the S.C. Association of Realtors, the S.C. Trial Lawyers’ Association and the Student Transportation of America group. Merrill is also charged using his company to get unlawful payments from the House Republican Caucus. Merrill has pleaded not guilty.
▪ Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, indicted in March for misconduct and illegal use of campaign funds, is said to have violated state law by paying a company controlled by the campaign consultant Richard Quinn & Associates some $247,829 over six years and getting back $132,802. The money Courson paid the Quinn firm came from Courson’s campaign account, but the money the Quinn firm then paid to Courson went for the senator’s “personal profit and benefit,” according to an indictment. Courson has pleaded not guilty.
▪ Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, was indicted last week on various charges, including failing to properly report some $4.5 million in payments to his businesses from entities including professional associations or trade groups. The money allegedly went to influence his votes in the General Assembly. Quinn has said he is innocent and will fight the charges.
Rick Quinn is the son of Richard Quinn, founder of Richard Quinn & Associates, a political consultant group with ties to numerous local, state and federal politicians.
Quinn’s firm has also represented the University of South Carolina, the S.C. Ports Authority and SCANA. Earlier this spring, Pascoe’s investigators raided Richard Quinn’s Columbia area offices, seizing documents and other data. So far, Richard Quinn has not been charged with anything.
Lynn Teague, vice president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog group, is one of many people watching to see what happens next.
She is particularly interested in state politicians who have set up consultancies and the Quinn firm’s relationships with so many important people and groups.
“Political consultants come in different forms: consultants who work for politicians, consultants who are politicians, and consultants who work on issues that are decided by politicians,” Teague said in an email. “The categories overlap a lot, and one reason the Quinn network is so complex is because it features all of those kinds of consultant relationships in one closely integrated network. The common thread that is of concern in these relationships is lack of transparency and accountability.”
Other differences between Lost Trust and Pascoe’s probe:
▪ The first indictments in Lost Trust were announced with fanfare in August 1990 by then U.S. Attorney Bart Daniel, who held a press conference in a grand courtroom in what is now the U.S. bankruptcy court in downtown Columbia. On hand were obviously pleased FBI officials and federal prosecutors and dozens of reporters.
Pascoe announces his indictments by sending out press releases. He has consistently refused comment. As far as is known, his investigation doesn’t even have a sexy code name the way Lost Trust did.
▪ Lost Trust prosecutors had it easy compared with Pascoe.
“Nobody was trying to knock Bart Daniel off the case and calling him a liar, repeatedly,” Freeman said.
On the other hand, last year State Attorney General Alan Wilson tried to remove Pascoe from the investigation and called him an incompetent liar – a charge most lawyers who’ve seen Pascoe’s work found baseless – at a widely publicized press conference. And one of Wilson’s top aides, Adam Piper, was caught trying to hatch a plot to smear Pascoe’s personal and professional reputation.
The dispute between Wilson and Pascoe wound up in the S.C. Supreme Court, where Pascoe went head to head with a private appellate lawyer picked by Wilson who was said to be one of South Carolina’s finest legal advocates. But Pascoe won a decisive 4-1 victory from the justices, who allowed him to continue the investigation without interference from Wilson.
Prosecutors’ resources as well as the standing of the accused also separate the two investigations.
During Lost Trust, the U.S. attorney’s office devoted immense resources to the criminal investigation. At one time, Crangle said, Daniel had 72 FBI agents and seven prosecutors on the case.
Pascoe won’t divulge how many State Law Enforcement Division agents he has working for him, but he is believed to have fewer than a half-dozen. He also has recruited three elected solicitors from around the state – Scarlett Wilson, Duffie Stone and Kevin Brackett – to help him. Wilson, Stone and Brackett are Republicans; Pascoe is a Democrat.
In Lost Trust, most of the corrupt lawmakers were small fry –“nobodies, bottom feeders,” in Crangle’s words. But in today’s investigation, the three facing outstanding indictments are all influential and long-term lawmakers.
Quinn, 51, and Merrill, 50, have served as House Republican majority leaders. They both serve on influential committees – Quinn on judiciary, and Merrill on finance. Courson, 72, a 32-year Senate veteran, is chairman of the Senate education committee and serves on the finance committee. All three have been suspended from their posts pending resolution of the charges.
In the early stages of Pascoe’s investigation, in 2014, Pascoe indicted and convicted Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who was serving as House speaker at the time and, as such, was one of the state’s three most powerful elected officials, along with the governor and Senate president pro tempore.
The charges against Harrell didn’t involve the use of businesses to funnel illegal cash to him. He eventually pleaded guilty to charges involving his use of money that was raised for campaign funds for personal expenses. Investigators also said in open court that he cheated on legislative expense accounts, getting repaid for nonexistent expenses.
On Tuesday, at the Richland County courthouse, Pascoe will face another challenge: Rick Quinn’s lawyers will move before Judge Knox McMahon to have Pascoe disqualified from his case.
If Pascoe continues on the probe, no one knows how many more indictments he might come up with. Last week, in announcing Quinn’s indictment in a press release, Pascoe characterized his current investigation as “ongoing.”
“I’d be surprised if it’s less than 10,” Crangle said.