Three legal ethics experts are criticizing S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson for sharing confidential information and for seeking advice concerning a potential criminal investigation with one of the subjects of that investigation.
Wilson’s conduct matters because he is South Carolina’s top elected law enforcement officer and, as such, is supposed to hold himself to the highest legal and ethical standards.
The ethics experts said that in October 2014, Wilson should not have asked his longtime political consultant and friend Richard Quinn Sr. to help edit a letter that would have informed independent prosecutor David Pascoe that he would play no further role in any future prosecutions stemming from an investigation into State House corruption.
“Clearly, he shouldn’t have been buddy-buddy with one of the subjects of the investigation and given them confidential information, which just about anybody who knows anything about legal ethics knows is flat wrong,” said John Freeman, ethics and business professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
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At the time, Quinn’s name was included in a confidential SLED investigative report about then-state Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, that was under review by Wilson’s office. Quinn’s son – state Rep. Rick Quinn Jr., R-Lexington, also a close Wilson friend and political ally – also was named as a possible investigative subject. Wilson knew at the time the Quinns were named in the report, he has acknowledged.
Wilson’s actions were disclosed by the Attorney General’s Office in recently released emails from a private email account used by Wilson.
Ethics experts’ criticisms ranged from calling Wilson’s communication with Richard Quinn Sr. “unwise” to urging an investigation to see if Wilson should be charged with obstruction of justice.
The bottom line is that legal ethics prohibit lawyers from sharing their work with non-clients, Freeman said. “You don’t get to be more non-client in the criminal area than being the target of an investigation on the other side from the prosecutor. ... Giving an opponent privileged access to what is, essentially, the people’s business – that’s just wrong.”
Wilson: ‘An honest mistake’
In a nearly two-hour interview with The State, Wilson defended his actions and said they should be understood in their fullest context.
Sending the letter to Richard Quinn for his review was “an honest mistake” that he never would make again, Wilson said.
But at the time, Wilson said, he considered SLED’s reference to Quinn inconsequential. In the SLED report, Quinn is mentioned once, and it wasn’t apparent that he ever would be a full-blown potential target of a criminal investigation, Wilson said.
“There was nothing in there to indicate he (Quinn) had done anything remotely wrong,” Wilson said. “In 2014, I never dreamed in a million years this would go where it went.”
That doesn’t matter, said Freeman. Lawyers shouldn’t share legal matters with outsiders.
“There is the issue of divided loyalty,” Freeman said. Wilson should not enlist Quinn’s help on a legal matter that concerns Quinn, he said. “That’s a conflict.”
Last year, Pascoe fought a legal battle with Wilson over who had control of the State House corruption investigation. The Supreme Court ruled in Pascoe’s favor, and Pascoe mounted a full-fledged probe with the State Grand Jury.
Since December, three lawmakers have been indicted, including Rick Quinn Jr., Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, and Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, on charges of using their public office for personal gain. The indictments of both Quinn Jr. and Courson mention Richard Quinn Sr.’s consulting firm as a vehicle for receiving and dispensing money.
Richard Quinn Sr. has not been charged with any wrongdoing. However, in March, his office was raided by SLED and thousands of documents seized.
Wilson, a Republican, said that in 2014 he thought of Pascoe, a Democrat, as a political adversary who had his eye on Wilson’s job as attorney general. Wilson said he had heard Pascoe considered running for the office in early 2010 and 2014. Since Richard Quinn is his trusted political consultant, it was only natural to discuss the letter with him, Wilson said.
Moreover, Wilson said he didn’t consider the draft letter he shared confidential.
“It was a public letter about a public event to a public official who I had a recent political history with, and I asked my political consultant to make sure it read well,” Wilson said. “There was no attempt to boot him (Pascoe) off the probe because there was no probe.”
Wilson said the letter only set out “lines of authority,” making it clear that the attorney general was the top prosecutor, and he and his office had the say-so on any prosecutions growing out of the SLED report.
After Wilson’s office in late October 2014 sent a final version of the letter to Pascoe, Pascoe’s involvement in the case ceased – at least temporarily. Pascoe became involved again in July 2015, when the Attorney General’s Office – citing conflicts – asked him to take over the probe growing out of the SLED investigation.
Wilson no longer using Quinn firm
In addition to Freeman, The State shared Wilson’s responses with ethics experts Greg Adams and John Crangle. They were not impressed.
Adams, an ethics professor at USC School of Law, called for a serious inquiry.
“The known facts and the context in which Attorney General Wilson emailed draft letters to Richard Quinn, obtaining his assistance in polishing them, need to be independently investigated by state or federal authorities and could warrant a prosecutor in charging Alan Wilson and Richard Quinn with obstruction of justice,” Adams said in a written statement to The State.
John Crangle, a lawyer and longtime S.C. ethics watchdog, characterized Wilson’s action as “unwise,” adding, “It’s not usually a good idea to ask advice from the subjects of criminal investigations.”
But Crangle sees no need for a criminal investigation of Wilson’s actions. Instead, voters at the next election “should be the judge and jury,” he said.
Wilson said he intends to run for attorney general in 2018 and currently does not have a political consultant.
But, he added, Quinn is a lifelong friend. “I am never going to distance myself from Richard Quinn, because he is a good man. He’s always treated me well.”
Wilson said he regrets the letter-sharing episode. “We’ve bent over backwards in this office to try to do things right,” he said. “I do not micromanage investigations. I tell them (my staff) go find the truth.”
Richard Quinn and David Pascoe declined comment for this story.
The emails were disclosed last week by The Post and Courier of Charleston.
The existence of the Quinns’ and Merrill’s names in the still-confidential section of the SLED report earlier had been revealed by The State newspaper.
Thursday, the Democratic Party urged state lawmakers to suspend Wilson from office, a day after Gov. Henry McMaster told the Democrats he doesn’t have the authority to suspend Wilson and wouldn’t even if he did.
KEY DATES IN 2014
JULY 24: S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson asks 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe to take over an investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell after “baseless accusations concerning the Attorney General’s lack of impartiality” from Harrell allies had shut down Wilson’s State Grand Jury investigation.
SEPT. 10: Harrell, R-Charleston, is indicted by a Pascoe-led grand jury on charges of using campaign money for personal expenses, filing false campaign disclosure reports and misconduct in office.
OCT. 1: Pascoe emails Wilson, calling his attention to a confidential section of the State Law Enforcement Division’s investigative report on Harrell that mentions Richard Quinn, Rep. Rick Quinn Jr., R-Lexington, and Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley. “Take a look at pages 34-42 of (SLED) Lt. Kevin Baker’s report,” Pascoe said.
OCT. 2: Wilson emails his chief deputy, John McIntosh, to say he is recusing himself from the investigation, citing possible “inherent conflicts between myself and members of the house(sic).” Wilson does not name those lawmakers. Rather than recuse his entire office, Wilson asks McIntosh to become supervising prosecutor in any investigation of other lawmakers whose names appeared in the SLED report on Harrell. (The State newspaper reports later, in 2015 and 2016, that the still-confidential SLED document names House Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, House Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, and Quinn’s father, political consultant, Richard Quinn Sr.)
OCT. 23: Harrell pleads guilty and resigns his seat.
OCT. 27: Wilson emails his campaign consultant, Quinn Sr., two copies of a letter – a long version and a short version – and asks Quinn what he thinks about the letters. A later version of the letter, which Wilson sends to Pascoe, is shorter but contains the same message: Pascoe will only be involved in any investigation growing out of the SLED report if the Attorney General allows him to be involved. Quinn’s draft was not sent.