Rick Quinn, son of Quinn firm owner is indicted
South Carolinians are divided over whether legislators recently accused of abusing their offices are “bad apples” or a symptom of a political culture tolerant of corruption.
S.C. residents are much more certain, however, about wanting to end free-for-all spending by secret groups that want to sway elections.
Those findings are from new Winthrop Poll questions asked exclusively for The State. The poll was conducted from April 2-11, amid an ongoing investigation into public corruption at the S.C. State House. The probe, led by special prosecutor David Pascoe, has indicted three Republican lawmakers so far.
Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston resigned and pleaded guilty to misusing campaign money in 2014. Now-suspended state Rep. Jim Merrill of Berkeley is accused of using his office to line his pockets. Most recently, state Sen. John Courson of Richland was accused of funneling campaign money to himself through his political consultant.
Pascoe’s investigation has S.C. lawmakers on edge, wondering who might be indicted next by the State Grand Jury.
However, public opinion is split on how far reaching the corruption is, according to the Winthrop Poll.
Of 878 S.C. residents surveyed, 45 percent said the accused lawmakers represent a broader political culture that tolerates corruption. However, 43 percent of those surveyed said a few “bad apples” have spoiled the cart.
Democrats surveyed in the poll were more likely than Republicans to see systemic corruption as the problem.
The accused legislators – all part of the Republican Party that controls every branch of S.C. politics – reflect a broader culture of corruption to 47 percent of Democrats. But 47 percent of the Republicans surveyed see those indicted as “bad apples.”
Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon said the partisan divide likely stems from the fact that, so far, only Republicans have been ensnared in the probe, unlike Operation Lost Trust, a 1990s FBI corruption sting at the State House that affected Democratic lawmakers.
John Crangle, a longtime ethics watchdog with the S.C. Progressive Network, said he was surprised that more S.C. residents didn’t say the Legislature is steeped in a culture of corruption.
But, he added, “The people of South Carolina are, historically, very forgiving as to the misconduct of public officials.”
However, Huffmon said there is a good chance the average South Carolinian is focused on other issues – earning a living, caring for their family and making plans for Easter – and less attuned to what goes on at the State House.
“A majority of people probably can’t name their own legislator, so when these names are bandied around, it’s not clear why it’s important,” Huffmon said.
Exposing ‘dark money’
South Carolinians are far less tolerant of so-called “dark money” – money from secret sources that is spent to sway elections, according to the Winthrop Poll.
The poll asked whether groups that publicly campaign for or against a S.C. political candidate, or for or against a public policy, should be required to disclose their donors publicly.
“We were asking folks if they want transparency in campaigns, and they’re for it,” said Huffmon, adding Winthrop pollsters didn’t use “loaded terms” such as “dark money” or “outside money.”
The poll’s findings show “people want to know who’s pushing the opinion that they’re being asked to buy into,” Huffmon said.
Seventy-one percent of S.C. residents said the dark-money groups should disclose their now-secret donors. The results were roughly the same for Republicans and Democrats.
In South Carolina, independent groups that spend money to influence the outcome of elections – often called political committees – once were required to report publicly their contributors. That disclosure allowed voters to weigh the motivation of the political committees and their donors.
But that changed in 2010, when federal courts ruled the state’s definition of a “committee” was overly broad.
That ruling had huge consequences, ushering in political seasons where anonymous groups would target candidates for defeat, spending untold amounts of money ponied up from unidentified sources.
Lawmakers have tried to close the dark-money loophole by fixing the law, addressing the court’s concerns about the definition of a committee. But those efforts have failed.
Some groups, such as the nonprofit S.C. Policy Council – a small-government, low-tax think tank that weighs in on public policy debates – have opposed some of those legislative fixes.
Policy Council president Ashley Landess says some of the fixes proposed are designed to intimidate and silence critics of public officials.
The poll surveyed S.C. residents for their opinions on public corruption and secret money in politics. In the field from April 2-11, the poll had a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.
On public corruption at the State House
Q. Which of the following comes closer to your beliefs about the South Carolina legislature?
Recent legislators who have been accused of political corruption represent “bad apples” and do not represent a broader culture that tolerates corruption.
Recent legislators who have been accused of political corruption reflect a broader culture in the legislature that tolerates corruption.
▪ The accused legislators represent a culture that tolerates corruption: 45 percent
▪ The accused legislators represent “bad apples:” 43 percent
▪ Not sure or refused to say: 12 percent
On making so-called “dark money” public
Q. Would you favor or oppose a proposal to require any organization that publicly campaigns for or against a South Carolina political candidate, or for or against a public policy, to publicly disclose their donors?
▪ Favor organizations disclosing their donors: 71 percent
▪ Oppose organizations disclosing their donors: 21 percent
▪ Not sure or refused to say: 8 percent
SOURCE: Winthrop Poll