Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen said Thursday she will rule "shortly" on whether to dismiss charges against state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland.
Mullen made her comments after 45 minutes of heated arguments between special prosecutor David Pascoe and Courson's lawyer, Rose Mary Parham of Florence.
Mullen did not explain what she meant by "shortly," but it likely meant the earliest a ruling could come would be next week.
Parham argued Pascoe – the 1st Circuit solicitor named special prosecutor by Attorney General Alan Wilson in 2014 – was granted authority by the S.C. Supreme Court only to bring criminal charges against two other lawmakers whose names were in a SLED report, not Courson.
Parham didn’t identify the lawmakers named in a confidential section of a SLED report about possible public corruption. However, The State more than a year ago identified them as state Reps. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, and Rick Quinn, R-Lexington.
“Mr. Pascoe was given an inch of power in this case, and he has taken a mile,” Parham told the judge.
Merrill recently pleaded guilty to misconduct in office and resigned from the House. Quinn has been indicted on two counts of misconduct. Quinn, who says he bis innocent, has been suspended from office.
Pascoe’s authority extended only to those two lawmakers and “never amounted to some kind of open-ended, blanket authority to investigate anyone he wanted,” Parham told Mullen.
If anyone should prosecute Courson, it should be Attorney General Wilson, she added.
Pascoe replied Wilson has little interest in taking this case. “The attorney general is not here to take me off the case,” Pascoe told the judge.
“In essence, what they are asking is for Mr. Courson is to get a free pass in this investigation, and that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever,” Pascoe said.
In an earlier hearing, Pascoe said publicly that investigators – while looking into other lawmakers – stumbled across evidence indicating Courson had received $132,000 in unauthorized payments from his political consulting firm, Richard Quinn & Associates.
Pascoe alleges Courson’s campaign made payments to Quinn & Associate and some of that money was kicked back to the senator for his personal use. Courson, he said, “used his campaign fund as a piggy bank.”
In questions to Parham, Mullen noted Wilson originally had appointed Pascoe as special prosecutor because he a conflict of interest concerning the two lawmakers named in the SLED report.
Those two lawmakers conceivably could appear as witnesses against Courson or any other lawmaker that Pascoe investigates, the judge added.
“If there are more indictments that come from this, how is he (the attorney general) not conflicted from other people in the case?” Mullen said. “How does he not recuse himself forever?”
Parham told Mullen that Wilson is the state’s top constitutional officer. As such, “That is up to him to decide or a circuit judge to decide. It is not for a circuit solicitor to decide.”
Parham also argued there has not been any judicial determination that Wilson has a conflict in the case.
“But he (Wilson) still recused himself, and there has to be a reason,” Judge Mullen rsponded.
Parham told Mullen that Wilson didn’t “recuse” himself – he “firewalled” himself from investigating the two lawmakers in the SLED report.
Mullen wasn’t impressed.
As the state’s top prosecutor, Wilson “has a constitutional duty to prosecute cases. He is charged with doing his job, so he has to have a reason for not doing his job,” Mullen said. “Which would be an explanation why he needed to ‘firewall’ himself or ‘recuse’ himself.”
Courson has been charged with a count of misconduct in office and a count of converting campaign money to his personal use. He has been suspended from office and says he will fight the charges against him.
Courson was not in court Thursday “for health reasons,” Parham said. The veteran senator, 72, is suffering from skin cancer.