The powerful Columbia political consulting firm Richard Quinn & Associates played a key role in the indictments of veteran Republican state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland.
Courson, 72, a state senator since 1985, was indicted by the State Grand Jury late Thursday on two counts of misconduct in office and one count of using campaign money for personal expenses. The indictments were made public Friday morning.
Hours later, Courson was suspended from the office he has held since 1985. Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant issued the one-page suspension letter, concluding with a somewhat personal note: “I regret these unfortunate events and pray that these matters are resolved in a timely matter.”
One of the three indictments charges Courson with unlawfully converting funds. It says Courson paid the Quinn firm $247,829 from 2006 to 2012. Then the Quinn firm paid Courson “though multiple transactions” $132,802, the indictment said.
Another indictment, for misconduct in office, says that Courson passed campaign contributions to Richard Quinn & Associates, “who then remitted funds to (Courson), converting campaign funds to personal use in order to obtain personal profit and benefit.”
The Quinn firm has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Founded in 1978, the consulting and public relations firm has been used for election advice and strategy for years, mostly by Republican politicians, and has strong ties to numerous prominent politicians, including Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. Its clients have included the late President Ronald Reagan and the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Richard Quinn, the grandfatherly, soft-spoken 71-year-old who is head of the firm, is regarded as a kind of savvy political guru whose counsel is sought on political matters large and small.
In a brief comment Friday, Quinn said, “The allegations are totally false.” He declined to comment further or say whether he has a lawyer.
Courson, a state senator since 1985 and one of the most respected political figures in South Carolina, said Friday through his attorney he is innocent and will fight the charges.
“Sen. Courson is ready for a jury to hear this matter immediately to put an end to these ridiculous charges once and for all,” his attorney, former assistant U.S. attorney Rose Mary Parham of Florence, said Friday.
“This is a political, partisan witch-hunt. Everyone knows Sen. Courson is a man of unquestionable integrity who would never use his public office for personal gain in any way.”
Under the law, Courson will go before a judge for a bond hearing. No date has been set.
It is against state law to use campaign funds for personal expenses. At any trial, Courson and his lawyers will have to explain a key issue in the case: why the Quinn firm gave money back to him.
“(Courson) did commit acts or omissions in breach of his duty of good faith and accountability to the public,” an indictment said.
The indictments came as a surprise. Although other current and former lawmakers have been named as possible targets on various news and blog sites, Courson’s name was not among them.
Sources said Courson had been told only Sunday or Monday that he was a target in the investigation. It is not known whether he or his lawyer were given the chance to offer an explanation of why Courson might have gotten payments from Richard Quinn & Associates.
The veteran senator is the third person indicted in a wide-ranging probe of alleged public corruption in the S.C. General Assembly. The probe, conducted by SLED agents and spearheaded by special prosecutor David Pascoe, indicted Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, in December on more than 30 charges, including misconduct in office.
In October 2014, former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to ethics violations and resigned his office, months after Pascoe was made special prosecutor by Attorney General Alan Wilson. For months afterward, the investigation remained in Wilson’s office but apparently made little progress.
In the spring of 2016, as Pascoe began to seek permission to activate a State Grand Jury with its special subpoena powers, Wilson tried to fire Pascoe and stop him from investigating further. Wilson also uses the Quinn consulting firm, but the attorney general said he was trying to remove Pascoe from the investigation because Pascoe was exceeding his authority as special prosecutor. In an embarassing rebuff to Wilson, the state Supreme Court disagreed and ruled Pascoe couldn’t be fired.
Pascoe said Friday morning the probe is ongoing but would not comment further besides stressing Courson’s presumed innocence.
“At this point in the process, the indictments are mere accusations,” said Pascoe in a statement. “Mr. Courson is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
Courson was the current chairman of the Senate Education Committee, which oversees public and higher education matters in the state. A genial, even-tempered man known for being accessible and helpful, Courson is popular with colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Adding to his likeability quotient and respectable image were his love for his family, the Republican Party, the U.S. Marines (he is an ex-Marine) and his affection for dogs. An avid tennis player who played people much younger than himself, his hobbies include trains and baseball.
Regarded as a moderate but conservative Republican, Courson is well-liked by environmentalists because of his support for laws that protect water, land and the air.
During a two-year period from 2012 through 2014, Courson served as the Senate President Pro Tempore, one of the state’s most powerful political positions. He stepped down to avoid ascending to the position of lieutenant governor.
Richard Quinn & Associates were not named in the indictments of former House Speaker Harrell, and available records do not reflect Merrill used the firm.
But the naming of the political influential firm in Courson’s indictments has made it clear that some of the focus of Pascoe’s investigation, which is being conducted largely out of public view, also encompasses the Senate and the Quinn consulting firm.
Longtime S.C. government watchdog John Crangle of the Progressive Network said that to indict Courson, Pascoe likely used information or records from the Quinn firm. That kind of information could have been obtained either from an insider helping law enforcement or by subpoenaeing Quinn records, Crangle said.
The State Grand Jury that Pascoe is supervising has subpoena power and can obtain bank records, emails and other kinds of ordinarily shielded internal documents from a private organization.
In any case, one of the reasons that Pascoe may have indicted such a respected figure was that it would shock any other possible wrongdoers into cooperating with law enforcement, Crangle said.
“This sends a message – if Pascoe can take down John Courson, who everybody thinks is such a straight arrow, he can take down other guys, too,” Crangle said. “The message says, ‘If you’ve been doing any shady stuff, you better get into my office, and you better cut a deal before I indict you. Because once I indict you, there’s no leniency.’”
Courson’s colleagues were dumbfounded.
“I’m just kind of blown away that it (the investigation) shifted over to the Senate because everybody had been looking at the House, but it appears that the epicenter is the Quinns,” said state Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster. “Anybody that’s been connected to them through campaign work could be in the sphere of the investigation.”
Staff writer Cassie Cope contributed.