Should former S.C. Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, who pleaded guilty to misconduct in office, go to prison for betraying the public trust?
Or should he get some kind of award for being a good friend, a family man, hard-working businessman and wonderful public servant? That’s how one of Quinn’s lawyers described his client’s good deeds and character at the Republican’s guilty plea hearing earlier this month, describing his offense as the kind of dispute normally heard in a civil court, not a crime.
Prison or freedom – that’s the question for Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen, who heard Quinn, 52, plead guilty on Dec. 13 in a Richland County courtroom. She deferred sentencing.
Misconduct in office carries a maximum punishment of up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. That means Mullen could sentence Quinn to probation or a year in prison.
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Other options? Mullen could sentence Quinn to weekends in jail. Or she could put him on house arrest.
As part of his negotiated guilty plea with special prosecutor David Pascoe, Quinn resigned his legislative seat. He had served two stints in the S.C. House – from 1989 to 2000, and 2005 to this month – where he was regarded as a power broker.
Whether a lawmaker’s conviction should land him in prison is already a campaign issue.
On Thursday, Michael Weaver, a McNair Law Firm attorney running for Quinn’s House District 69 seat, said any politician convicted on ethics charges deserves “mandatory jail time.”
John Crangle, a longtime observer of General Assembly ethics practices, said, “It’s reasonable for the public to expect that Rick Quinn will get some prison time because of the magnitude of the wrongdoing and because he was a central figure in it. How much time that will be, I can’t predict. My guess is six (to) 12 months.”
Crangle said Quinn’s comments after being indicted did not help him. On several occasions, Quinn told reporters that Pascoe, a Democrat, was on a partisan “witch hunt” fueled by a lust to defeat S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican.
“The judge might consider that (comment) as an aggravating circumstance – impugning the integrity of the special prosecutor, ” said Crangle, a lawyer who wrote a book on the Legislature’s last major corruption scandal, the 1990s “Lost Trust” sting.
Others say Quinn deserves only probation.
Laura Hudson, a registered lobbyist and advocate for the S.C. Crime Victims Council, praised Quinn for his work on a bill that cracked down on drunk drivers.
“He’s being punished aplenty by having to give up his seat and the public embarrassment and having to pay some money,” Hudson said, adding some drug and gun offenders get probation or house arrest. “He’s not dangerous to anybody, and he’s done a lot of good things, not that that excuses illegal behavior.”
Complicating Judge Mullen’s decision is the unusual nature of Quinn’s guilty plea hearing.
Quinn pleaded guilty to a sweeping misconduct indictment alleging various ethics failures. But he admitted to only one infraction – failing to file a disclosure regarding nearly $30,000 paid by the University of South Carolina to a company he was associated with.
To show the extent of the indictment, special prosecutor Pascoe gave a 45-minute slide show, presenting highlights of the case, developed by SLED agents, that he would have brought had Quinn not pleaded guilty. More serious charges, dropped in return for Quinn’s guilty plea, would have exposed the Republican to a 15-year prison sentence, Pascoe said.
Pascoe’s slide show asserted Quinn and his father, Richard Quinn Sr., illegally had run the Richard Quinn & Associates consulting firm and Rick Quinn had used his position as a legislator to help his father’s clients, making nearly $5 million in the process.
The Quinns thought they were “untouchable,” Pascoe told Judge Mullen. “There has been no one more corrupt than Rick Quinn.”
Quinn’s lawyers objected Pascoe’s slide show was unfair.
“So much of what he just presented is not true,” defense lawyer Johnny Gasser told Mullen, adding the defense’s expert witnesses would have poked numerous holes in Pascoe’s case during any trial.
Gasser was followed by Matthew Richardson, another defense attorney, who told the judge, “Rick has never taken any money for his personal benefit.”
Quinn has led a life of service, is a caregiver to his wife, Amy, and their two school-age children, and has done numerous acts of public service, including being a founding member of the Lake Murray-Irmo Rotary Club, Richardson said.
“We request not more than three months probation ... (and) no jail time,” Richardson said.
Mullen wanted to know why Pascoe was not taking his case to trial, if he had so much evidence.
Pascoe replied Quinn’s father, Richard Quinn, is part of the “package plea agreement.” The elder Quinn has agreed to testify before the state grand jury in January, he added.
“We’re going to find out a lot next month,” Pascoe said. “If he doesn’t tell the truth, he’s going to be indicted for perjury.”
Does that mean, Mullen asked Pascoe, that Richard Quinn has evidence against other targets?
“We know he does, your honor,” Pascoe replied.