Crime & Courts

Haunted by Quinns, Alan Wilson seeks third term as SC attorney general

Attorney General Wilson defends himself, attacks opponents

Attorney General Alan Wilson defends himself and his office after his opponents attack his campaign at a debate in Greenville before a GOP women's group.
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Attorney General Alan Wilson defends himself and his office after his opponents attack his campaign at a debate in Greenville before a GOP women's group.

Less than a month before the June 12 Republican primary, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson is being dogged by allegations that he tried to derail a public corruption investigation into GOP political godfather Richard Quinn and his son, former state Rep. Rick Quinn.

The question is: Will those allegations sink Wilson's bid to win a third four-year term?

At a Greenville forum Thursday, Wilson's GOP primary challengers — state Rep. Todd Atwater of Lexington and attorney William Herlong of Greenville — attacked the incumbent for his ties to the suddenly toxic Quinns.

Herlong vowed to eliminate "political influence" in the attorney general's office. Wilson, he said, had been too close to the Quinns, even working with Richard Quinn to shut down a criminal investigation into the so-called "Quinndom."

If he is elected, "that kind of stuff would stop," the 59-year-old Herlong told the Greenville County Republican Women's Club.

The 52-year-old Atwater, a lawyer, didn't mention the Quinns by name. But, if elected, he said, he would root out public corruption and restore integrity to the attorney general's office. "We can't have just another politician."

Wilson, 44, fired back.

"They have convinced themselves that they have to destroy my reputation, lie about my reputation, and lie about the role of the office for them to have a chance to get in the runoff."

The fall of the Quinndom

At the center of the storm is Richard Quinn, 73, Wilson's former political strategist.

For years, Quinn engineered successful campaigns for South Carolina's GOP powerful — from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca to Gov. Henry McMaster of Columbia to 2nd District U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of Springdale, Alan Wilson's father, to the younger Wilson's 2010 and 2014 campaigns for attorney general.

In Quinn's empire, Alan Wilson was a star client, headed — many thought — to the Governor's Mansion.

But Quinn's influence extended beyond getting GOP candidates elected.

His firm also received hefty annual payments from big-dollar clients — including the University of South Carolina, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, AT&T, SCANA, the S.C. Trial Lawyers and the State Ports Authority — to advance their agendas at the Legislature. There, Quinn's son, Rick, was a longtime Republican representative.

Wilson's Quinn travails began in late 2013, when a confidential State Law Enforcement Division report was turned over to the attorney general's office. The report centered on then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. However, the report also mentioned both Quinns. Rick Quinn, SLED said, possibly had used his elected office for personal financial gain.

Wilson's office launched an investigation. However, in early 2014, Wilson stepped aside, naming 1st Judicial Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe as special prosecutor.

After Harrell entered a guilty plea to misusing campaign money and resigned from the House in late 2014, Pascoe emailed the attorney general's office, urging the Quinns be investigated.

Despite his ties to Richard Quinn — paying his firm more than $220,000 for his two elections — Wilson secretly asked Quinn to help him draft a letter to Pascoe, telling him his job as special prosecutor was completed.

Subsequently, Wilson acknowledged that involving Quinn was a mistake.

In July 2015, Wilson's office returned the Quinn investigation to Pascoe. But, in early 2016, Wilson tried to fire Pascoe after the special prosecutor decided he needed to use the state grand jury for his investigation. A then-top Wilson aide, Adam Piper, also secretly tried to orchestrate a campaign to smear Pascoe.

In July 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled Pascoe would stay as special prosecutor.

Almost a year later, Pascoe indicted then-Rep. Rick Quinn on charges of misconduct in office. In October, Richard Quinn was charged with criminal conspiracy, including secretly paying state legislators to influence legislation.

In December, the Quinns entered guilty pleas to reduced charges. Rick Quinn also resigned from office. Charges against Richard Quinn were dropped. However, his Richard Quinn & Associates firm was required to plead guilty to failing to register as a lobbyist and pay a fine. The elder Quinn also agreed to testify secretly before Pascoe's state grand jury, doing so in recent weeks.

Attorney General candidates William Herlong and Todd Atwater attack current Attorney General Alan Wilson over alleged political corruption with Richard Quinn at a GOP women's event in Greenville, SC.

'Kind of simmering'

Now, Republican voters must decide whether to punish Wilson for his ties to the Quinns.

"That thing is kind of simmering," longtime GOP political consultant Chip Felkel of Greenville said of the State House corruption scandal. "But I haven't seen any evidence to say it's really taken" hold with voters. "Maybe the folks who were challenging him were counting on the other shoe dropping, but so far, it hasn't happened."

Wilson has advantages: the power of incumbency and more name-recognition than Herlong or Atwater.

Wilson also has more money. As of the end of March, Wilson had a $1.1 million in his campaign war chest. Herlong had $650,000, including $497,000 in loans from the candidate. Atwater had $520,000, including $400,000 in loans from himself.

Also, in his eight years in office, Wilson has forged links with law enforcement and victims' rights groups, and, for the most part, championed popular causes: fighting child sex predators, gangs and human trafficking.

Wilson also has taken red-meat positions on a host of GOP hot-button social and political issues, opposing sanctuary cities, transgender use of public bathrooms, gay marriage and Obamacare.

Those positions carry weight with the evangelicals and conservatives who cast most of the votes in the normally low-turnout GOP primary, said former Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen, a longtime observer of S.C. politics.

"Alan has been pretty adept over the years at nurturing his base and touching all sides in the Republican Party," Thigpen said.

Atwater has his own ethical baggage, some say.

For much of his time in the S.C. House, Atwater was the $400,000-a-year chief executive officer of the S.C. Medical Association, a nonprofit that lobbies state government and operates an insurance subsidiary. Hospitals and insurers often seek contracts with the state or changes in regulation. However, Atwater insists his job was not a conflict of interest, saying he separated himself from the association's lobbying and, sometimes, did not vote on an issue, when there was a potential conflict.

Even if Wilson manages to win the GOP nomination, the Quinn issue will not go away.

Anastopoulo has signaled she plans to raise the Quinns on the campaign trail, too.

"The AG should enforce the laws, not interfere in the process."

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