The state judge who will decide whether to shut down a significant part of special prosecutor David Pascoe’s State House public corruption probe or give it the green light is a 69-year-old ex-cop known for plain talk that includes a knack for quoting not just the law, but pop singer Alicia Keys.
“Don’t make me read between the lines, go straight to the chase,” Judge Knox McMahon told lawyers for Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, and his father, Richard Quinn, toward the end of a daylong hearing last week. That was Knox paraphrasing one of Keys’ pop songs, “A Woman’s Worth.”
Lawyers for the Quinns presented witnesses all day Tuesday in a hearing at the Richland County courthouse. They were trying to persuade McMahon to disqualify Pascoe from the case because, they argued, Pascoe and nine SLED agents had bungled a surprise search and seizure raid at the Quinns’ Gervais Street offices earlier this spring.
If McMahon rules Pascoe oversaw an unlawful search at Quinns’ offices, prosecution of the case would continue, but without the large cache of potential evidence seized during that search.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. For more than a year, Pascoe has been investigating the Quinns, among others, as part of the highest-profile case to hit South Carolina in years. Pascoe has activated a State Grand Jury, with its special powers to subpoena emails and bank records.
Some of the state’s top lawyers are at each others’ throats. On one side is special prosecutor Pascoe, who last year fought and beat Attorney General Alan Wilson before the S.C. Supreme Court to avoid being tossed off the case. Wilson was trying to replace Pascoe with another special prosecutor.
On the other side, representing the Quinns, are defense lawyers with more than 100 years’ combined experience – Greg Harris, Johnny Gasser, Debbie Barbier and Matthew Richardson, all of Columbia. Harris, Gasser and Barbier are former prosecutors.
Thorny issues in this case won’t bother McMahon, associates say.
“McMahon knows criminal law from A to Z,” said Columbia defense attorney Dennis Bolt, a former prosecutor who has known the judge for more than 30 years. “He’s tough, honest and no-nonsense – lawyers like that.”
The son of a Columbia police detective, McMahon began his career as a police officer himself, walking a beat in downtown Columbia. He served as a Lexington County deputy and detective, and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s law school in 1978. He then worked with former 11th Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers, helping Myers win numerous death penalty cases before serving eight years with the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office in Columbia as senior prosecutor. After leaving to go into private practice, he became a judge in 2006.
“High profile doesn’t bother him – he’s going to do what’s right,” said Charles Whetstone, a former state judge who worked with McMahon in private practice.
The investigation into the Quinns involves alleged public corruption in the S.C. General Assembly, and since December, two House members and a state senator have been indicted.
Rick Quinn, 51, a longtime, influential House member, was indicted May 16 on two charges of public corruption, charges including the allegation that Quinn didn’t report more than $4.5 million in payments from groups that lobby the Legislature to his father’s company, in which Pascoe alleges Rick Quinn also has a top role.
His father, Richard Quinn, 71, is the owner of Richard Quinn & Associates, which for more than 35 years has been South Carolina’s most influential political consulting firm, with ties to numerous state and federal politicians. Richard Quinn has not been charged.
On March 2, nine State Law Enforcement Division agents executed a surprise search warrant on the Quinns’ offices in downtown Columbia on Pascoe’s orders. Agents seized numerous documents, laptop computers and thumb drive memory sticks.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the Quinns’ lawyers summoned more than a half-dozen SLED agents who raided the Quinns’ offices, getting them to say there was not on the scene an official “taint team” – a team of independent law officers or lawyers who would pick out and quarantine material possibly covered by attorney-client privileges. Such teams ensure that prosecutors don’t see privileged material that might give them an unfair edge at trial.
Although his agents didn’t have an official taint team, Pascoe argued they were trained to recognize and sift out material that might pose a problem.
Every thing seized in the raid has been turned over to 16th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Kevin Bracket of Rock Hill, whose assistant solicitors are going through the material to separate out what Pascoe might not be allowed to see.
Neither Pascoe nor his investigators have seen any of it, Pascoe told McMahon on Tuesday.
“These may be records that relate to possible illegal payments, tax evasion, there is just no telling,” said longtime state government ethics watchdog John Crangle, who wrote a book on the 1990s Lost Trust General Assembly bribery scandal. But the documents also might contain privileged information that Pascoe shouldn’t see, he said.
Crangle predicts McMahon will ultimately keep Pascoe on the case.
“There’s not testimony that Pascoe had any opportunity to see the disputed evidence,” said Crangle, who sat through all of Tuesday’s hearing.
Jack Swerling, a criminal defense lawyer who has known McMahon 40 years, said, “I don’t know which way he’s going to rule, but whichever way it is, it will be based on a clear and thoughtful analysis.”
Lawyers’ briefs in the case are due to McMahon by June 5. He is expected to rule sometime after that.