Crime & Courts

‘Dark money,’ political and financial crimes pollute SC State House, report says

The S.C. State House has been awash in dirty politics involving rivers of “dark money” and likely financial and political crimes centered around the consulting firm of Richard Quinn Sr. for years, according to a state grand jury report made public Tuesday.

The report focuses on what special prosecutor David Pascoe described as “pay-for-influence schemes” revolving around Quinn’s firm.

It also says S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, R-Lexington, cooperated with his political consultant, Quinn, behind the scenes and stalled the state grand jury’s investigation into Quinn and his clients for years.

Wilson was more loyal to Quinn and his family than to “the citizens of South Carolina, who he represents,” the grand jurors said in their report, adding Wilson’s “actions impeded this investigation.”

The attorney general regarded “Mr. Quinn as a second father,” the report said, adding in recent years, Wilson “reassured Mr. Quinn that everything would be fine and that he didn’t believe the Quinns had done anything wrong.”

Wilson, a Republican up for re-election in November, released a statement late Tuesday saying “the Pascoe report is riddled with already-disproven political innuendo and baseless conjecture. ... This is an entirely political smear less than a month from an election and it should be dismissed as just that.”

But Wilson’s Democratic opponent, law professor Constance Anastopoulo of Charleston, called on Wilson to resign. “We don’t need another elected official entrenched in scandal.”

Noting the state grand jury concluded Wilson’s stalling of Pascoe’s investigation let several criminals go free because the statute of limitations expired, Anastopoulo said, “Mr. Wilson has shown he does not understand or appreciate the role of attorney general.”

Quinn’s lawyer, Deborah Barbier, released a statement calling the grand jury report “bogus.” Barbier said the report was Pascoe’s attempt to “make charges in the media that he could not prove in a court of law.”

Noting Pascoe is a Democrat, Barbier said the “report makes baseless and untruthful allegations against Richard Quinn, his family and many other fine Republicans in this state.” The report was released now “to influence the results of the upcoming November election,” she said.

For years, Quinn, 73, has been known as a “kingmaker” or a political “godfather” to many of the numerous prominent politicians that he helped elect and whose careers he nurtured, including Gov. Henry McMaster, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, Attorney General Wilson and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.

Quinn has an “extensive network of powerful clients and friends,” the report said. His political empire is dubbed “the Quinndom.” Quinn’s retainer fees ranged from $6,000 to $20,000 a month, the report said.

However, since Quinn allowed his firm, Richard Quinn & Associates, to plead guilty last year to lobbying without a license, his reputation has suffered and he has lost clients. Quinn’s son, Rick Quinn, a longtime Lexington Republican lawmaker, also pleaded guilty last year to misconduct and resigned his post in the S.C. House.

Some of Quinn’s clients were S.C. institutions — including some of the biggest names in the S.C. business and government worlds — that “retained Mr. Quinn for his access to and influence over some of the state’s most powerful figures,” the report said.

Five of those S.C. institutions — the University of South Carolina, the Palmetto Health hospital system, the AT&T communications giant, the SCANA energy company and the S.C. Association of Justice trial lawyers group — acknowledged in the report that they used the Quinn firm to lobby the legislature while the firm secretly was paying lawmakers to influence legislation. However, the institutions insisted they did not know the Quinn firm had lawmakers on its payroll.

The state grand jury concluded there was probable cause that each of the institutions had violated S.C. law. Without admitting wrongdoing, they agreed to pay a total of $352,000 to defray the investigation’s costs, documents said.

Palmetto Health paid $100,000; USC paid $90,000; SCANA paid $72,000; AT&T paid $60,000; and the trial lawyers paid $30,000. The money will go to Pascoe’s office and to the S.C. Ethics Commission, the report said.

The 55-page report is trail-blazing.

Never before has a S.C. state grand jury issued such a scathing finding about influence peddling at General Assembly and named big-name institutions as players.

The report was released after Pascoe and an attorney for The State, Jay Bender, argued before Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman that the public should be able to read it. The state grand jury wanted it released.

The state grand jury’s report revealed that one Quinn client — the S.C. Association for Justice, the trial lawyers’ group — secretly funneled more than $200,000 to defeat state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens. Martin wanted to put caps on jury payouts in civil lawsuits, which the trial lawyers opposed.

Quinn’s firm “created a front entity for the (trial lawyers’) money called Better Future for Our Community,” the report said. “Those attack ads were successful against Sen. Martin and he was defeated.”

(Meanwhile, another Quinn client, SCANA, was helping fund Martin’s re-election effort, leading a SCANA executive to call “consultants like Quinn a ‘pack of thieves,’ “ the report said.)

After Martin lost, state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, a trial lawyer and another Quinn client, assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wielding substantial power to advance or block legislation, including tort reform.

During its two-year investigation, the state grand jury interviewed 32 witnesses in secret. They included Attorney General Wilson, USC president Harris Pastides, former State Senate leader and current College of Charleston president Glenn McConnell and Quinn Sr.

In his appearance before the grand jury, Pastides told the panel that he used the Quinn firm because Quinn “seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the community sentiment, how communities, people, business officials, elected officials thought about the university.”

Quinn also had warned USC that it faced backlash from the GOP-controlled Legislature because many Republicans viewed the school as “the place where old Democrats go to retire.” To counter that image, Quinn suggested USC hire his almost-exclusively GOP consulting firm.

The grand jury also had access to numerous documents, including computer and bank records seized from Quinn’s Columbia offices during a March 2017 raid. In all, State Law Enforcement Division agents and prosecutors reviewed nearly 976,000 pages of evidence, the report said.

Pascoe’s four-year investigation has led to the resignations and convictions of four prominent Republican lawmakers. Three were indicted by the state grand jury that made Tuesday’s report.

Two other former lawmakers, Jim Harrison, R-Richland, and Tracy Edge, R-Horry, have yet to go on trial. Harrison, charged with misconduct, goes on trial Oct. 22.