Public corruption trial for Former State Rep. Jim Harrison starts in Richland County
Former state Rep. Jim Harrison secretly was paid “over $900,000 by his friend Richard Quinn” to exert behind-the-scenes influence on legislation for 13 years while the Columbia Republican was in the S.C. General Assembly, a prosecutor told a Richland County jury Monday.
And, when asked by a journalist if he worked for Quinn, Harrison “flat-out lied” and said he didn’t, special prosecutor David Pascoe told the jury in opening arguments Monday of Harrison’s trial.
“He (Harrison) said, ‘I’m not on the payroll of Richard Quinn & Associates,’ ” Pascoe told the jury.
Speaking after Pascoe, Harrison’s lawyer, Reggie Lloyd, told the jury that the prosecution’s case was “hogwash.” Harrison, who left the Legislature in 2012, is “honest” and was so highly regarded by his friends that they campaigned for him when he was out of the country on military deployments, Lloyd said.
“His life has been about public service, honest public service,” Lloyd told the jurors, adding he will show them that prosecutors are trying to pin crimes on an innocent man. “Jim Harrison not only never broke any laws — he never sought to break any laws,” the former SLED director said.
Lloyd compared Pascoe to Lavrently Beria, the ruthless Soviet secret police chief under Joseph Stalin who was known for prosecuting innocent people. Beria’s motto, Lloyd told the jury, was, “Show me the man and I’ll find the crime.”
Harrison, 67, is charged with two counts of misconduct, a count of conspiracy and two counts of lying to a state grand jury about his work for Quinn’s firm. From 1999 to 2012, Harrison was chairman of the S.C. House’s Judiciary Committee and one of the most powerful members of the Legislature. Roughly 40 percent of all bills came to his committee, where the chairman held immense power to decide if a proposal advanced, died or was bottled up in committee.
However, the jury’s verdict also will address the broader issue of whether “dark money” — untraceable, undisclosed payments made to lawmakers or on their behalf — is legal in South Carolina. Lawmakers are supposed to report money that their employers get from companies that lobby the Legislature, and Harrison didn’t do that, Pascoe said.
Pascoe, using bank records from First Citizens Bank obtained by the state grand jury, contends the $900,000 in payments that RQ&A made to Harrison from 1999 to 2012 were illegal.
But Lloyd said he will show the jury the payments were legal and Pascoe is twisting the law to try to convict Harrison.
Richard Quinn & Associates did political consulting for politicians, but it also represented companies and organizations, including SCANA, the Palmetto Health hospitals, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina.
When SLED agents examined RQ&A’s bank records, they found money going into the firm each month from SCANA and other companies “and money going out every month to legislators. The highest paid of those legislators? Chairman Jim Harrison,” Pascoe told the jury.
Lloyd tried to humanize Harrison, starting his remarks with, “Forgive me, I’m going to call him Jim.”
Harrison graduated from The Citadel, was in the U.S. Army Reserve for decades and deployed to Saudi Arabia and Bosnia, Lloyd said. “He had to leave his legal practice and his family.”
Lloyd said Harrison didn’t have enough power in the Legislature to pass — or kill — bills that Quinn’s corporate clients wanted passed — or killed, Lloyd said. Harrison’s “only ability to affect those bills came from being one of 124 members of the Legislature.”
After the lawyers’ opening statements, the prosecution called its first witness — State Law Enforcement Division Lt. Jeremy Smith, the lead agent on the case.
Smith told the jury that documents seized during a March 2017 SLED raid of Quinn’s office included an unsigned 1999 agreement between Harrison and Richard Quinn, saying Harrison would be paid $3,750 bimonthly, as well as bank records showing payments to Harrison. Until the raid, Smith said, agents were not thinking of investigating Harrison.
Among the witnesses Tuesday will be Rebecca Quinn Mustian, Pascoe told Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen. Mustain, the chief finance officer of Richard Quinn & Associates, is expected to testify about the Quinn-Harrison agreement.
Mullen told jurors the trial is expected to last a week.
The screening of prospective jurors Monday morning gave a hint of possible witnesses and issues:
Among the possible prosecution witnesses: consultant Quinn; his son, former state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington; Palmetto Health chief executive Chuck Beaman; former State newspaper editorial page editor Brad Warthen; former state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington; former ATT of SC CEO Pamela Lackey; former state Reps. Jim Merrill and Tracy Edge; and state Reps. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, and Mike Pitts, R-Laurens.
Harrison is the fourth lawmaker to go to court after being indicted by the Pascoe-led state grand jury in its investigation of State House corruption. That probe is the biggest public corruption investigation in South Carolina since the “Lost Trust” investigation in the 1990s, which ensnared more than a dozen lawmakers.