State Judge Knox McMahon indicated Tuesday he will make no decision for at least two weeks as to whether to disqualify David Pascoe as special prosecutor in the State Grand Jury public-corruption case he has brought against indicted Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington.
Late Tuesday afternoon, after a daylong hearing at the Richland County Courthouse prompted by Quinn and his father, Richard Quinn Sr., McMahon gave attorneys on both sides until June 5 to file briefs on whether Pascoe should be kicked off the case.
The motion to disqualify Pascoe centers around a March 2 surprise search warrant that nine State Law Enforcement Division agents, acting on Pascoe’s behest, served on the Columbia offices of Richard Quinn Sr. During the search, agents seized a cache of 54 items and a small trove of computer equipment, including laptops and thumb drives.
During the hearing, lawyers for the Quinns – Greg Harris, Johnny Gasser and Matthew Richardson for Rick Quinn and Debbie Barbier for Quinn Sr. – argued that SLED had bungled the search by not taking steps to properly identify and seal off confidential lawyer-client material from other material gathered in the raid.
That is grounds to remove Pascoe, the Quinns’ attorneys argued.
To make their case, defense lawyers called more than half a dozen SLED agents to the witness stand, interrogating them on whether they had been properly trained in how to segregate evidence seized in searches and whether a “taint team” had been on the scene.
Agents, including Capt. Richard Gregory, who oversaw the search, testified that although a “taint team” had not been on the scene, agents had been trained to separate any material that looked like it might be subject to confidentiality rules, and therefore out of bounds for prosecutors to use. Questionable material, such as possible correspondence between the Quinns and their lawyers, had in fact been segregated and put in a sealed envelope, Gregory said.
A “taint team” is a group of trained investigators or lawyers who wade through seized evidence, separating material that a prosecutor is not supposed to see. Seizures of confidential lawyer-client letters or emails, for example, may give a prosecutor an unfair advantage. An improper search could be found unconstitutional.
During the hearing, Pascoe also told McMahon that no prosecutors or SLED agents had looked at any of the seized material, which had been turned over to 16th Judicial Circuit solicitor Kevin Brackett of York County, one of three elected solicitors assisting Pascoe in his investigation.
Brackett is keeping the material away from Pascoe and his investigators until the judge rules on the motion to disqualify Pascoe and whether the search was constitutional, Pascoe said.
The case has attracted widespread attention.
For years, Quinn Sr., 72, has been the most influential campaign consultant in South Carolina, with ties to dozens of institutions and public officials, including Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Quinn’s son, Rick Quinn, 51, is a prominent member of the S.C. House of Representatives. A former Republican majority leader, Rick Quinn serves on the powerful House Judiciary Committee.
Pascoe indicted Rick Quinn last week, charging him with two counts of official misconduct. The most serious charge alleges Quinn used businesses he owns to accept money from trade groups and corporations and then did their bidding in the General Assembly. Quinn is now suspended from his post and was granted bond Tuesday morning.
Rick Quinn was the third person indicted by Pascoe in an ongoing investigation into alleged public corruption in the State House.
Both Quinns have their offices in a one-story building at 1600 Gervais St., across the street from the new University of South Carolina School of Law.
Tuesday’s hearing was unusual in that most matters before a State Grand Jury are confidential. However, a hearing to disqualify a prosecutor is public.
Tuesday’s hearing was at times contentious, as when Barbier asked McMahon to hold SLED in contempt of court for failure to comply with defense subpoenas.
“They don’t get to decide when and if to comply with a valid subpoena,” Barbier charged.
Pascoe told the judge Barbier’s allegations are “frivolous” and described her subpoenas as a “fishing expedition.”
Longtime state government watchdog John Crangle, who sat through Tuesday’s hearing, told The State newspaper that while SLED’s search wasn’t perfect, it appeared to be legal. “I’d give it a B-minus,” Crangle said.