A state judge Monday sentenced former state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, to one year in prison and then suspended that sentence.
Instead, Quinn will have to do 500 hours of community service — “public service,” Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen said — and serve two years of probation after pleading guilty to one count of misdemeanor misconduct in office.
Quinn, 52, who resigned from the House in December as part of a plea deal, also was fined $1,000. He could have received up to one year in jail.
However, in passing sentence, Mullen made it clear she thought a prison sentence would be too severe.
“Mr. Quinn has no criminal record. His political career is over. He has been disgraced, and his family business has been destroyed,” she said.
At the same hearing, Mullen also levied a $2,500 fine against the Richard Quinn & Associates public relations and political strategy firm — operated by Quinn’s father, Richard Quinn — and ordered it to pay $3,000 in restitution for failing to register as a lobbyist, a misdemeanor offense.
The two sentences were part of a plea deal in which special prosecutor David Pascoe agreed to drop nearly all the charges against the Quinns.
In return, Rick Quinn, a 20-year House veteran known for his political influence, agreed to plead guilty to the misconduct in office for failing to report income from the University of South Carolina, which lobbies the Legislature. Richard Quinn also agreed to testify before the state grand jury, as part of its ongoing investigation into State House corruption.
‘Various political atrocities’
Quinn and the Quinn firm entered their guilty pleas in December.
Since then, Pascoe has had second thoughts on the validity of Rick Quinn’s guilty plea. In filings with the state grand jury, Pascoe urged Mullen to reconsider her acceptance of that guilty plea.
The dispute over the plea’s validity centered on a lengthy list of alleged offenses, supported by exhibits, that Pascoe outlined at Quinn’s Dec. 13 plea hearing. Those offenses constituted seven years of misconduct by Quinn and his father’s firm, Pascoe told Mullen then.
Rick Quinn, a former GOP majority leader in the House, pocketed more than $4 million by using his legislative position to pass bills or regulations at the behest of powerful groups and corporations, Pascoe told the judge in December.
But Monday, Mullen made it clear she was disregarding all of Pascoe’s statements about Rick Quinn’s other alleged misdeeds, which she referred to as “various political atrocities.”
“As far as the court is concerned, he (Rick Quinn) is presumed innocent of those allegations until and unless he is proven guilty,” Mullen told the court. “The U.S. and the South Carolina constitutions require no less.”
Mullen continued, “The court of public opinion may presume his guilt as to those allegations, but I cannot. If the solicitor wanted Rick Quinn to be punished for his actions, he should have tried him on all counts indicted or negotiated a different deal.”
At his December plea hearing, Quinn and his defense lawyers, Matthew Richardson and Johnny Gasser, made it clear the former state representative was making only a limited admission of guilt to a fairly technical violation — not reporting a payment from a lobbyist’s principal, an organization that lobbies the Legislature. Lawmakers are required by law to report the names of lobbyists who pay them money.
After Monday’s brief hearing, Rick Quinn and his lawyers, and Debbie Barbier, Richard Quinn’s lawyers, lambasted Pascoe for what they described as a years-long, politically motivated, baseless investigation of the two Quinns.
Barbier emphasized the plea deal resulted the dismissal of all charges against Richard Quinn and only a fine against his business.
That “speaks volumes about the validity of this investigation,” Barbier said. “Richard Quinn was falsely accused of being an unregistered lobbyist. He was not a lobbyist. He is not a lobbyist. ... Richard Quinn has been totally vindicated.”
The charges against Richard Quinn that were dismissed included a felony charge of criminal conspiracy and a charge of illegal lobbying. The charges alleged Richard Quinn unlawfully had lobbied the General Assembly, where his son, Rick, occupied an influential lawmaker’s post.
For years, Richard Quinn has been a kingmaker in S.C. politics.
His political consulting firm’s clients included a stable of politicians, including S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, R-Richland, and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca. His corporate clients included numerous groups with business before General Assembly, including USC, ATT, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, SCANA, the S.C. Ports Authority and the S.C. Trial Lawyers Association.
‘I never used my office for personal gain’
“This ordeal has been a nightmare for the Quinn family,” Barbier said, adding Pascoe’s investigation was “an organized effort to destroy his father’s business.”
Calling Rick Quinn’s offense a “minor disclosure error,” Barbier said the Lexington Republican pleaded guilty and resigned from office “as a selfless act” to end the ordeal for his father, mother, sisters and their families. “For more than three years, they have suffered media stories that have been leaked from anonymous sources that had no validity. Their good name has been savaged by untrue allegations.”
In a press conference outside the courthouse, Rick Quinn said, “If Mr. Pascoe really believed all those accusations, he would have taken me to trial. ... He didn’t because he knew he couldn’t prove those false allegations.”
The former state representative said he never improperly used his legislative position. “I never used my office for personal gain. Those are all lies by Mr. Pascoe.”
Quinn said he wanted to take the charges against him to trial, but reconsidered after his 73-year-old father was indicted and Pascoe “threatened to indict other family members.” Quinn said that made him evaluate “at what cost do you try to protect your family name?”
Quinn said the Pascoe-led State House corruption probe was motivated by the special prosecutor’s own political ambitions — a desire to run against S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, R-Lexington, one of his father’s political strategy clients and “one of my clients.”
Pascoe “never should have been allowed to prosecute or investigate me,” the defiant former state representative said.
The plea agreement forbids Pascoe from investigating the Quinns again, Rick Quinn said, calling Pascoe’s actions “a political assassination. ... I am free to talk in the days to come, and I’ve got a lot to say about Mr. Pascoe.”
‘Take it up with the Court of Appeals’
In his filings, Pascoe had argued Rick Quinn did not specifically say he had the “intention” of breaking the law during his mid-December guilty plea. As a result, Pascoe contended, Quinn’s guilty plea was invalid.
However, in handing down her sentence, Judge Mullen put Quinn under oath and asked him, “Mr. Quinn, are you guilty of one count of statutory misconduct in office for intentionally failing to report income from the University of South Carolina, a lobbyist’s principal?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Quinn said.
“The plea is valid,” Mullen said.
At the beginning and end of Monday’s sentencing hearing, Pascoe attempted to make an on-the-record statement to Mullen about the flaws in Rick Quinn’s guilty plea.
Each time, Mullen muzzled Pascoe, telling him to stop speaking and file a written protest later.
“Mr. Pascoe, you may be seated,” Mullen told Pascoe at the hearing’s beginning after he tried, several times, to make a statement.
At the hearing’s end, when Pascoe tried to speak again, Mullen told him, “Mr. Pascoe, now is not the time. I am stepping down.”
Pascoe shot back: “I don’t have the right to put my objections on the record. Is that what this court is saying?”
Mullen replied, “You can take it up with the Court of Appeals if you believe in any way I’m wrong.”
State House corruption probe continues
Afterward, Pascoe, a Democrat, denied he was motivated by political ambitions and said he never before had been stopped from stating an objection in court by a judge.
“I didn’t ask for this job,” said Pascoe, who was appointed in 2014 by Republican Attorney General Wilson to investigate then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. Pascoe’s investigation led to Harrell’s resignation and guilty plea to a charge of using campaign money for personal expenses.
Pascoe then went on to indict then-Rep. Jim Merrill, a Berkeley Republican and former House majority leader, and the Quinns.
All three had been named in a confidential SLED report on State House corruption.
Merrill pleaded guilty last year to misconduct in office and resigned from the House.
Pascoe’s investigations continue.
State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, is scheduled to stand trial on March 13 on charges of misconduct in office.
Former state Reps. Jim Harrison, R-Richard, and Tracy Edge, R-Horry, also are awaiting trial on charges of misconduct in office and perjury, respectively.