Special prosecutor David Pascoe may be on the verge of doing what no other S.C. Democrat has been able to do in two decades – bringing down the S.C. GOP.
S.C. Democrats say Pascoe’s State House corruption probe, which on Thursday announced the indictment of a third powerful GOP lawmaker, could kickstart their revival after years of political futility.
They see parallels between the Calhoun Democrat’s investigation and Operation Lost Trust, a legislative vote-buying scandal in the early 1990s that ensnared 17 lawmakers – mostly Democrats – and helped the Republican Party take control of the Palmetto State.
“The potential is great to really overturn the apple cart here and start to build something new,” said outgoing S.C. Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison. “I hope the next chair of the party – and I will certainly help with this – will focus on a message of changing the culture of corruption in South Carolina.”
Republicans doubt Democrats would benefit much from a flurry of new indictments. Reduced to stunned shock by Friday’s indictment of Republican state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, they alternate between warning of the dangers of politicizing indictments and calling Pascoe’s probe a partisan witch hunt.
“Democrats’ biggest challenge is a lack of good candidates,” said outgoing S.C. GOP chair Matt Moore. “Their efforts would be better spent focusing on developing talent. You can’t win an election without a candidate.”
It is unclear how many more lawmakers are in Pascoe’s crosshairs. But Democrats already have started a crusade to brand the S.C. GOP as the party of corruption.
Hours after the 1st Circuit solicitor announced the indictment of Courson on public corruption charges Friday, Democratic operatives released statements saying the GOP’s stranglehold over S.C. government of “absolute power has corrupted absolutely.”
Republicans’ control of S.C. politics is not in question.
The GOP holds all of the state’s 11 constitutional offices and both its U.S. Senate seats, majorities in the S.C. House and state Senate, and six of the state’s seven U.S. House seats.
South Carolina has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1976. Its voters last elected a Democratic U.S. senator in 1998, the last year a Democrat was elected governor. And, in 2014, the Democratic candidate for S.C. governor suffered the party’s worst loss for that office in 24 years.
But Democrats argue the GOP has done little with that power, aside from enriching itself and racking up ethics violations.
▪ In 2010, in the wake of his disappearance and extramarital affair, former GOP Gov. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, agreed to pay a state-record $74,000 in fines after he was charged by the State Ethics Commission with using state planes for family trips, spending campaign money on a hunting trip and flying first class, instead of coach, while on state travel.
▪ In 2012, then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned after his indictment on 106 ethics violations.
▪ That same year, the GOP-majority House Ethics Committee cleared then-GOP Gov. Nikki Haley of charges that she illegally lobbied and used her position as a state representative for personal financial gain.
Then, in 2014, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican, became the first lawmaker to fall in Pascoe’s corruption probe, an investigation the state’s Republican attorney general later tried to abort.
Harrell resigned and pleaded guilty to spending campaign money on personal expenses. He avoided jail time in a plea deal that required him to tell federal and state authorities about the illegal activities of others, including lawmakers.
As part of that probe, state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, was indicted last December and accused of using his office to pocket at least $1.3 million.
Courson’s indictment was the latest shoe to drop in the ongoing investigation.
“Our infrastructure in this state is falling apart. Our schools are ranked as some of the worst in the nation. All of this is under the watch of Republicans who have been doing nothing but padding their bank accounts,” said Harrison, the state Democratic Party chair. “Enough is enough. I really hope the people of South Carolina are really fed up.”
However, Republicans note Democrats are not immune to corruption.
In 2013, former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, resigned in 2013 during a hearing into allegations that he had misused campaign donations. A year later, state Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, was ordered to pay $23,387 in fines and restitution for improperly handling his campaign accounts and spending donations for personal use.
‘It’s all about corruption’
Still, some Democrats see Pascoe’s probe as an opportunity to whip S.C. voters into a frenzy over GOP corruption, the result, they say, of one-party rule.
“We are going to make sure that we put forward candidates who can articulate the difference between the Democratic values that fight for the middle class and the Republican values that dictate everybody follow one set of laws but that Republican elected officials play by another,” said Trav Robertson, a Columbia political operative who is running for state party chair.
Robertson’s opponent for Democratic chair agrees.
“You have to show a contrast between what Democrats stand for and what Republicans stand for,” said Susan Smith, a Pawleys Island activist. “Obviously, it’s all about corruption. It’s all about ethics problems, and it’s all about political hacks taking over state government.”
Pascoe’s ongoing probe could give Democrats more ammunition.
The shocking indictment of a respected senator, Courson, and the indictment’s prominent mention of the Columbia-based Richard Quinn & Associates political consulting firm has fueled speculation Pascoe is not close to finished.
That firm, headed by Richard Quinn, has links to some of the state’s most powerful Republicans, including Gov. Henry McMaster, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, state schools superintendent Molly Spearman and state Senate leaders Hugh Leatherman and Luke Rankin.
“The Quinns have their tentacles into a whole lot of pockets,” said longtime S.C. government watchdog John Crangle. “If they’re cooperating (with Pascoe), there’s no telling how many people they are going to implicate in wrongdoing.”
There is no evidence that Richard Quinn or his son, state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, are cooperating with investigators, and neither has been charged with any wrongdoing part of Pascoe’s probe.
But others named in the indictment of state Rep. Merrill — who, like Courson, has been suspended from office — have said they are cooperating with investigators.
Democrats say a Lost Trust-esque scandal could turn the political tables in their favor.
That 1990s scandal helped escalate the GOP takeover of the State House, already set in motion as white conservatives fled the Democratic Party.
Seventeen lawmakers, including 14 Democrats, were convicted after a 16-month FBI sting operation in which a lobbyist handed out $100 bills in return for legislators’ pledges to vote for a horse-gambling bill.
Clemson University pollster Dave Woodard agrees Pascoe’s probe offers S.C. Democrats an opportunity. But the state Democratic Party is not positioned to take advantage, he said.
Statewide, S.C. voters are suspicious of Democratic candidates, Woodard said, noting GOP President Donald Trump’s 14-point victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in South Carolina last fall.
Also, the Democratic bench of candidates is so thin, and State House districts so gerrymandered, that a Republican ousted for corruption likely would be replaced by another Republican, Woodard said.
“I just don’t know how many legislative and senatorial districts there are that are that close,” said Woodard, a sometimes GOP consultant. “The gerrymandering is pretty complete here.”
Moore, the state GOP chair, insists rooting out State House corruption is not a partisan issue, adding, “It’s sad to see the Democrats making it one.
“Sadly, both parties have faced indictments over the last few years,” Moore said. “I think South Carolinians want ethics violations and self-dealing exposed, regardless of the political consequences.”
7 years, a dozen GOP scandals
A string of S.C. Republicans have been charged with ethics violations in the past seven years.
Then-S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, agrees to pay a state-record $74,000 in fines to settle 37 ethics charges related to his travel and campaign expenses, violations that only came to light after the two-term governor — now again a congressman — disappeared and, then, return to the state to acknowledge an extramarital affair.
▪ Then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard , R-Florence, resigns after his indictment on 106 ethics violations. Ard pleads guilty to seven charges and receives five years’ probation.
▪ The GOP-majority House Ethics Committee clears then-Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, of charges that she illegally lobbied and used her position as a state representative for personal financial gain.
▪ State ethics officials drops charges that S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, R-Lexington, used campaign cash improperly to attend the Republican National Convention with his girlfriend.
▪ Then-S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigns and pleads guilty to spending campaign money on personal expenses. Harrell avoids jail time with a plea deal that requires him to tell federal and state authorities about the illegal activities of others, including lawmakers.
Former state Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Horry, resigns after a female House member files a sexual-harassment allegation. Hardwick is indicted on a count of misconduct in office, a misdemeanor offense that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, after House leaders turned over their investigative findings to law enforcement.
▪ The S.C. House Ethics Committee releases redacted reports detailing allegations of inappropriate behavior by former state Rep. Eddie Southard, R-Berkeley, toward two House pages and a lobbyist.
▪ S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis is reprimanded after being accused of influencing the selection of a longtime friend to receive $2 million in legal work from the state.
▪ Suspended state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, is indicted on 30 charges of misconduct in office and ethics violations.
▪ State Rep. Chris Corley, R-Aiken, is arrested in December on charges of first-degree criminal domestic violence. In January, Corley is indicted on the most serious tier of domestic charges: criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature. He is accused of punching his wife in the face.
▪ State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, is indicted on two counts of misconduct in office and one count of using campaign money for personal expenses.