An FBI agent testified Tuesday that he came away mystified after interviewing ex-Rep. Jim Harrison for four hours in 2017 about what the Columbia Republican had done for a political consulting firm to justify being paid almost $900,000.
“I didn’t understand why somebody (Harrison) would be getting paid $80,000 a year” by Richard Quinn & Associates and not be able to describe “what they were doing,” FBI agent Chris Garrett told jurors.
Pressed for details, Harrison didn’t give specifics about what he did for the Quinn firm from 1999 through 2012, the FBI agent testified.
For those 13 years, Harrison publicly was chairman of the S.C. House’s Judiciary Committee, a key legislative committee. Roughly 40 percent of all House bills pass through that committee.
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Prosecutors are trying to prove the Quinn firm paid Harrison about $900,000 and, in return, Harrison used his committee chairmanship to pass or kill legislation to benefit Richard Quinn & Associates’ business and institutional clients.
On Tuesday, the second day of Harrison’s trial, five prosecution witnesses testified.
Special prosecutor David Pascoe tried to use their testimony to elicit evidence showing Harrison was paid by Quinn to influence legislation. Meanwhile, Harrison’s defense lawyers — former SLED director Reggie Lloyd and former state Rep. Hunter Limbaugh — tried to show Harrison did nothing wrong.
FBI agent Garrett, who testified for 45 minutes late Tuesday, was brought into the state’s public corruption investigation to see if a handful of S.C. legislators broke any federal laws by taking money from Quinn. In the end, federal authorities decided to leave prosecution of the corruption cases to the state, Garrett said, under cross-examination by Lloyd.
During a September 2017 interview at SLED headquarters, Harrison told Garrett and a SLED agent that he did campaign work for the Quinn firm, the FBI agent testified. Harrison told the agents he had worked on seven campaigns for the political consulting and strategy firm, including the presidential bids of U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2000 and 2008, and now-Gov. Henry McMaster’s 2002 race for state attorney general, Garrett testified. But Harrison could remember few details of what he did on those campaigns, the FBI agent said.
Another prosecution witness, Trey Walker, testified Tuesday that he had high-level jobs with the McCain and McMaster campaigns, and could not recall Harrison doing any work on those campaigns.
Walker, a former Richard Quinn & Associates employee, now is Gov. McMaster’s chief of staff. But, from 2011 to 2014, he worked for the University of South Carolina as a lobbyist.
In 2011 and 2012, the Quinn firm represented USC in the state legislature, working for bills that affected the university, Walker testified. In those two years, USC was paying the consulting and strategy firm about $10,000 a month to help it with presenting its message to the Legislature. However, Walker testified he did not know that Harrison, who was House Judiciary Committee chairman, was on Quinn’s payroll.
Had he known, “I would have been uncomfortable with it and would have reported it to my supervisor,” Walker testified.
That is because an institution or company that lobbies the Legislature is not allowed to hire a firm like Quinn’s with a legislator on its payroll, Pascoe asserted in his questions to Walker.
Walker also testified that while he was an employee of the Quinn firm around 1999, Harrison also worked there. But, Walker added, he had no idea what Harrison did, even though he had “a very nice office.”
As they cross-examined prosecution witnesses Tuesday, Harrison’s defense attorneys stressed the former state representative was only one of 124 lawmakers in the House. As a result, they said, he did not have much influence.
Other testimony Tuesday touched on the influence of the Quinn firm in the Legislature. Richard Quinn & Associates’ members called themselves “Team Quinn.” Detractors called them the “Quinndom.”
According to testimony, those on “Team Quinn” included Harrison, former state Sen. John Courson of Columbia, and former Reps. Tracy Edge of Myrtle Beach, Jim Merrill of Charleston, Rick Quinn Jr. of Lexington and, at times, Kenny Bingham of Lexington, all Republicans.
Harrison, Courson, Edge and Quinn Jr. received payments from the Quinn firm, evidence showed.
After their indictment, Courson, Merrill and Quinn Jr. resigned from the Legislature and entered guilty pleas to misconduct. A trial date for Edge, who faces perjury charges, has not yet been set.
On Tuesday, defense attorney Lloyd attacked a major plank in the prosecution’s case, forcing a prosecution witness — SLED Lt. Jeremy Smith — to acknowledge that no section of S.C. ethics law clearly states legislators must disclose they are paid by a company that does business with “lobbyists’ principals” — companies or entities that hire lobbyists to pass or defeat bills in the Legislature.
In his questions, Lloyd made it clear that he will argue to jurors that even if Harrison was on the Quinn payroll and did not disclose it, that was not against the law.
Former State editorial page editor Brad Warthen also testified, telling jurors that he interviewed Harrison for his editorial page blog in 2006.
Warthen, who said he took great care in to quote people accurately, testified he quoted Harrison in a September 2006 blogpost as saying of Quinn, “I’m not on the payroll, but I work with them, and am compensated for what I do.”