I STILL WANT to see the connection between cause and effect — the proof that legislators helped Richard Quinn’s clients because they were paid to do so, and not simply because they wanted to. But the details that Solicitor David Pascoe laid out in court last week certainly illuminate the corruptible underbelly of South Carolina’s government.
Mr. Pascoe hasn’t charged anyone with bribery or extortion — felonies that would require the solicitor to prove that legislators were paid to vote a certain way. He has charged four current and former legislators with the incredibly open-ended conspiracy charge and the vague “misconduct in office” — which can mean acting legally but corruptly, or even simply “defiling the office.”
The allegations concerning former House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison, former Rep. Tracy Edge, Sen. John Courson and Mr. Quinn certainly seem to meet the misconduct standard. The legislators clearly put somebody’s interests ahead of the public’s interests. Mr. Quinn clearly profited from the relationship he cultivated with those lawmakers, and perhaps others, at the expense of the public.
Whether the actions of Mr. Quinn’s son — Rep. Rick Quinn — rise to the corrupt or defiling level depends on whether he did in fact work for his father, as Mr. Pascoe alleges and he denies.
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Mr. Pascoe said repeatedly that he was giving the court just a sampling of the evidence he said he has has against the five, who were indicted earlier this month on criminal conspiracy charges. That allegations show a consultant who helped elect and groom legislators and then actually hired some who were positioned perfectly to help his business clients. That’s precisely the sort of arrangement that a cynical public has come to believe is standard operating procedure in government but that we’ve previously seen little evidence to support in South Carolina.
According to Mr. Pascoe:
▪ For the entire time that Mr. Edge was chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the state’s health budget, he was receiving monthly checks of $2,000 to $3,200 from Mr. Quinn for “consulting.” That positioned Mr. Edge nicely to help Quinn clients such as BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, which provides Medicaid coverage whose rules are written by the panel Mr. Edge chaired. He never reported the money on his annual statement of economic interest, which, as Mr. Pascoe explained, is supposed to give voters a heads-up when legislators might have conflicts between their own interests and the public’s interests.
Mr. Edge was indicted on a perjury charge after he told the State Grand Jury he didn’t know that Mr. Quinn represented state agencies or “lobbyist principals” — organizations, such as BlueCross BlueShield, that hire lobbyists. But Mr. Pascoe uncovered an email from Mr. Edge to Mr. Quinn that referred to “getting the USC deal,” which suggests he at least knew the University of South Carolina was a client.
▪ Mr. Harrison, whose powerful committee handled many bills that interested Mr. Quinn’s clients, received more than $900,000 from 2000 until he left the House in 2012, an average of about $7,000 per month, and didn’t report it on his statements of economic interest.
Curiously, neither Mr. Edge nor Mr. Harrison was charged with that apparently clear violation of the ethics act, but instead with the misconduct and conspiracy charges.
Mr. Pascoe noted that none of the legislators recused themselves from voting on matters that benefited Mr. Quinn’s clients. But recusal requirements aren’t as tight as they should be.
He also noted that they didn’t list their Quinn jobs in the Legislative Manual. That’s not required, though its absence suggests they were trying to hide it.
But I can’t figure out any way it was legal for Mr. Harrison and Mr. Edge to not report the income they received from Mr. Quinn, since state law (Section 8-13-1130) requires legislators to report the name of any lobbyist’s principals who pay more than $200 a year for goods or services from the legislators or their employers. Curiously, though, neither Mr. Edge nor Mr. Harrison was charged with that apparently clear violation of the ethics act.
▪ Rep. Quinn supported legislation that helped several of his father’s clients. He also asked another legislator to not vote on (rather than vote against) a bill that would help one of this father’s clients. It sounds unsavory, but whether it violates the ethics act depends on whether Rep. Quinn was working for his father. If so, he violated the same reporting laws that it looks like Mr. Harrision and Mr. Edge violated but that he also isn’t charged with violating.
The actions aren’t in dispute. What’s in dispute is the motivation and meaning behind those actions.
▪ Sen. Courson was previously accused of receiving checks from Mr. Quinn right after paying Mr. Quinn for his services. In court last week, Mr. Pascoe added this detail: When InfiLaw was trying to buy the Charleston School of Law in 2014, Mr. Quinn drafted a letter — and then had Mr. Courson sign it — that asked the Commission on Higher Education to delay its decision about allowing the purchase. The commission, which had been expected to reject the purchase, granted the delay. This happened days after InfiLaw hired Mr. Quinn.
I can’t figure out how Mr. Courson was able to accept those checks, since it’s illegal to use campaign funds for personal expenses (a crime with which he was not charged). That is, unless, as Mr. Pascoe seemed to suggest, the checks weren’t kickbacks but rather payments for taking legislative actions to serve Mr. Quinn’s clients, which would violate a different law.
Best as I can tell, the questions of who met with whom and who paid money to whom and who voted which way are not in dispute. What’s in dispute is the motivation and meaning behind those actions. In some cases, that could make a difference. In others, it’s irrelevant.
And any of these arrangements that aren’t prohibited by the ethics law need to be.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.