Veteran state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, resigned from office Monday, pleaded guilty to one count of willful misconduct in office and agreed to cooperate with an ongoing investigation into public corruption at the S.C. State House.
Courson, a former Senate president pro tempore, became the fourth Republican legislator to resign and plead guilty as part of that investigation, led by special prosecutor David Pascoe and State Law Enforcement Division agents.
Courson's plea, announced Monday morning in a Richland County courtroom during a seven-minute hearing, brought an end to a 33-year Senate career. Courson's trial was about to start when the deal was announced to a crowded courtroom, full of SLED agents, lawyers, media and members of the public.
Courson, 73, could face a 10-year prison sentence. However, state Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen deferred sentencing until a later date. How much prison time, if any, Courson gets depends on how much he cooperates.
After the hearing, Courson — who had a reputation as one of the Senate's more courteous, accessible members — met with reporters, answering their questions.
"I accepted responsibility for an error that I've committed," Courson told reporters. He said he has been encouraged by expressions of support that he has received but added, "I agree that what I did was in error, and I apologize for that."
Pascoe said after Monday's hearing that Courson, who had entered into a "cooperation agreement," might be called before the state grand jury investigating State House corruption. The prosecutor declined to say if and when more indictments might be forthcoming.
From 'witch hunt' to 'wrong'
Fourteen months ago, when Courson was indicted, his attorney, Rose Mary Parham of Florence, said the charges were the result of a "witch hunt" by Pascoe. Until Monday, Courson had insisted he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
But Monday morning, after studying the prosecution's case and noting his attorney had been in plea negotiations with Pascoe, "I came to the conclusion that what I did — as far as the reporting component — was wrong," Courson told reporters.
Pascoe was planning to put before a jury evidence that Courson had accepted some $159,000 over six years from the Richard Quinn & Associates political consulting and strategy firm.
Between 2006 and 2012, Courson "willfully failed" to comply with the State Ethics Act by having an "agreement" with RQA whereby Courson would pay the Quinn firm from his campaign account and that firm would give Courson money back, Pascoe told the judge.
The arrangement amounted to Courson's getting "kickbacks," Pascoe said in an earlier Courson hearings.
Courson, elected to the state Senate in 1984, was one of the Legislature's longest-serving members. He was known as a moderate, pro-environment Republican representing a district that includes the University of South Carolina.
Courson had been suspended from office since his indictment last year. A special election now will be held to fill the District 20 Senate seat.
Courson was the first member of the more genteel Senate to be swept up in the State House corruption probe.
Courson originally was charged with misconduct in office, criminal conspiracy and converting campaign money to his personal use by taking kickbacks from RQA.
According to the indictment and public statements by Pascoe in court, Courson paid Quinn's Columbia firm sizable political consulting fees to handle campaign expenses on various occasions. Then, within days, the Quinn firm would write Courson a personal check for under $10,000. Courson would take that check to a Bank of America branch where he had an account and cash it, leaving the bank with thousands in cash.
In all, Courson paid the Quinn firm $247,829 from 2006 to 2012. Then, the firm paid Courson $159,000 "though multiple transactions," according to indictments.
By getting checks from the Quinn firm for less than $10,000, Pascoe has said, Courson avoided a law that requires banks to report all transactions of more than $10,000 to federal law enforcement authorities.
'He was a pawn'
Courson's explanation for the transactions was that he was getting reimbursements for legitimate campaign expenses. The Quinn firm advised him the transactions were fine, Courson told reporters.
But Pascoe said he could have shown a jury otherwise.
"Even if they were legitimate reimbursements, you can't do it through a third party. That violates every tenet of the Ethics Act," Pascoe said.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, the Anderson Republican who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, was even more blunt.
"It's another manipulation of the Quinn mafia," said Bryant. "I like John Courson. Everybody likes John Courson. I feel like he was a pawn and he was manipulated. ...
"It's just unfortunate that these political consultants manipulate their clients the way they do and use them as pawns for their personal gain."
Richard Quinn, too, initially faced criminal charges in connection with Pascoe's investigation into influence-peddling at the General Assembly. However, as part of a December plea-bargain deal, Pascoe dropped all criminal charges against Quinn. In return, Quinn's firm agreed to pay a fine for illegally lobbying the Legislature, and Quinn agreed to testify before the state grand jury.
Founded in 1978, the Quinn firm had strong ties to numerous prominent S.C. GOP politicians, including Gov. Henry McMaster, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson. Its clients also included the late President Ronald Reagan and the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Pascoe told Judge Mullen on Monday that two other charges against Courson — statutory misconduct in office and criminal conspiracy — will not be dismissed until he has finished cooperating,
"If the State believes Mr. Courson has cooperated fully and truthfully, the State will dismiss those charges," Pascoe said.