Last week’s indictments of a senior state senator hints that one of South Carolina’s largest and most influential political consulting firms could be vulnerable to criminal charges, lawyers and political experts say.
Though not accused of a crime, Richard Quinn’s firm is named in the misconduct and ethics indictments of Sen. John Courson, R-Richland. The indictments say First Impressions Inc. was doing business as Richard Quinn & Associates and played a key role in the case.
The charges from the State Grand Jury allege that Courson channeled $247,829 in campaign money to First Impressions in a series of transactions over six years between 2006 and 2012. The firm then paid the senator $132,802 through multiple transactions that he spent for his personal use, the indictments allege.
Courson has said he’s not guilty and will fight the charges. Quinn has not been charged, but he, too, maintains his innocence.
Based on the evidence spelled out in the indictments, the conduct described is in line with the more serious crime of money laundering, according to attorneys experienced in prosecuting or defending that crime as well as a longtime government watchdog and a veteran GOP political activist/professor who is not involved in the case.
“These types of transactions are characteristic of the classic money-laundering scheme,” said Columbia lawyer Jim Griffin.
Griffin is a former federal prosecutor and has defended clients charged with money laundering – which is a federal violation but won’t become a crime in South Carolina in situations like the Courson case until June 9. That’s when a broader money-laundering statute signed into law last year takes effect. That law cannot be applied retroactively to the Courson-Quinn allegations outlined in the indictment.
Yet current South Carolina law exposes the firm to the prospect of being charged with other crimes, such as criminal conspiracy, the attorneys say.
Quinn, in a statement Saturday when The State newspaper inquired about exposure to the possibility of money-laundering allegations, said, “All I can say is we are always very careful to follow the law. And I have done nothing wrong.”
Elements of money laundering
Dick Harpootlian is a former state prosecutor and longtime defense attorney as well as ex-chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party. He said he also has contributed financially and otherwise to Courson’s campaigns. Harpootlian also sees elements of money laundering.
“If what is in the indictment is accurate and proved, it would constitute money laundering,” Harpootlian said. “You can’t say it’s money laundering (for sure) without knowing more. But it certainly bears looking into.”
It is not known whether federal investigators have launched a money-laundering investigation.
In general terms, the law bars anyone from using a legal business to cover up illegal money or illegal activities. In Courson’s case, prosecutors allege he paid the Quinn firm for political consulting services with campaign contributions, then got some of that money back and didn’t use it for political purposes. The senator used it for personal expenses, prosecutors say.
Until the South Carolina Anti-money Laundering Act takes effect in about two months, state money laundering charges can be filed only when narcotics are involved. The new law will subject anyone convicted to as much as five years in prison and stiff fines.
John Crangle, formerly director of S.C. Common Cause and now government relations director for the S.C. Progressive Network, said he does not know all the facts behind the allegations. “But if this happened, this is simply a conspiratorial way of diverting campaign funds for personal use.”
Crangle said it’s likely that special prosecutor David Pascoe, having developed evidence that Courson received checks from the Quinn firm, is now looking for other lawmakers who have received money.
“If he finds what he thinks is one case, he is going to look for other cases, to see whether or not Quinn had a practice of doing this,” Crangle said of Pascoe.
Retired Francis Marion University political science professor Neal Thigpen said that even the appearance of money laundering can have severe consequences for the Quinn firm and its clients, including one of its oldest, Gov. Henry McMaster.
“The prospect of money laundering would certainly appear to be a distinct possibility,” Thigpen said of the wording in the indictment. “It could be a death rattle for the firm.”
The implications of any type of charge – even if Quinn won in court – would be huge, said Thigpen, who has been active in GOP politics for decades and has known Quinn and McMaster for years. “It’s still going to run off his big-dog clients.”
The influential Quinn firm, commonly called the “Quinndom” for the sweep of its impact on S.C. politics, especially Republican politics, was founded in 1978. Its clients reach to the highest offices in the state and nation. They include the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, current senior U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and McMaster. The firm also worked for the election of the late President Ronald Reagan and scores of members of the S.C. General Assembly.
Thigpen, himself a GOP consultant, said Quinn works diligently to build his stable of successful politicians. In 2004, for example, Quinn wanted Thigpen to back Quinn’s candidate for U.S. Senate, former Gov. David Beasley, over the Upstate’s Jim DeMint.
“I asked him why (he was backing Beasley). He said, ‘I’ve got Lindsey, and I’d kinda want to have both of them (senators) in my group,’” Thigpen said. “That’s how he kind of collects people.”
Implications of any charge
McMaster said Friday he will not distance himself from Quinn, who worked on McMaster’s numerous campaigns.
“I’m not saying it would whip him,” Thigpen said of the impact of the investigation on a McMaster re-election campaign next year for a full term. “But can’t you just hear it now: ‘Henry’s a nice guy, but he’s part and parcel of that Quinn Republican Party political ring.’ ”
The taint of the current charges are likely to encourage challengers in the GOP primary for governor, Thigpen said.
Meanwhile, Crangle doubts that a federal money-laundering investigation would be launched under a President Trump administration. McMaster was one of the first statewide elected officials in the nation to endorse the billionaire in last year’s state Republican primary.
Even if federal investigators were to file a charge, the statute of limitations would not allow agents to use anything that happened more than five years ago, Griffin and Harpootlian said. Money laundering under federal law is a serious charge that can put offenders away for up to 20 years and fine them $500,000 or more.
In the end, Thigpen said he believes Pascoe’s investigation is really aimed at the Quinn firm.
“It has less to do with John (Courson) than with Quinn,” the retired political science professor said. “He’s the boss, the leader of what you could characterize as a (GOP) ring.”
Staff writer John Monk contributed.