An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported emails were sent in 2016 from the S.C. Association for Justice to Richard Quinn about political mailers paid for by Better Future for Our Community. The emails were between Quinn and his employees.
Some of the Palmetto State’s largest institutions spent hundreds of thousands to buy access to S.C. legislators — all without public disclosure, according to a new state grand jury report.
From pushing university budget requests, to expediting hospital acquisitions, to tort reform, to telecommunications funding, corporate and nonprofit entities alike relied on now-tarnished political “oracle” Richard Quinn and his consulting firm to flex its muscle to get lawmakers to rally behind the “team” or “lose with dignity.”
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A judge on Tuesday released a long-secret state grand jury report detailing the messy intersection of business and state government.
The 270-page report describes how various S.C. institutions did business with state lawmakers, centered around Quinn’s consulting firm.
To avoid criminal indictments and civil penalties, the University of South Carolina, the Palmetto Health hospital system, telecom giant AT&T, the SCANA utility and the S.C. Association of Justice trial lawyers group agreed to pay — without admitting any wrongdoing — a total of $352,000 to defray the investigation’s costs.
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 special interest groups, who also routinely employ registered lobbyists to push their agendas, enlisted the services of Richard Quinn & Associates to buy access and influence over the legislative process, according to the grand jury.
The state grand jury interviewed 32 witnesses in secret, including USC president Harris Pastides, Palmetto Health CEO Charles “Chuck” Beaman, USC executive Ed Walton, and AT&T South Carolina president Pamela Lackey, among others.
In all, State Law Enforcement Division agents and prosecutors reviewed 975,856 pages of evidence, including emails between Quinn and his firm’s clients detailing meetings with lawmakers to either win support or get them to drop their opposition to specific legislation.
Pastides told the grand jury that Quinn was hired to help USC’s new vice president of communications familiarize herself with SC politics, and that it was not his intention to hire Quinn as a lobbyist.
However, emails between Quinn and USC’s then-lobbyist Trey Walker, now S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s chief of staff, discuss providing the university’s legislative and budget priorities to Quinn and asking him to assemble his legislative “team” to discuss them.
That team included Quinn’s son, then-state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington; then House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington; and then-state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley. according to the emails.
Rick Quinn and Merrill subsequently entered guilty pleas in the State House corruption probe.
The state’s largest university with almost 35,000 students, USC relies on S.C. lawmakers for about 10.5 percent of its $1.5 billion-a-year budget, and for approval of building projects and new academic programs.
Walker told grand jurors that legislators in the Republican-controlled General Assembly thought Richard Quinn, a longtime GOP power broker, was an “oracle” because his experience and political prowess gave his words special weight.
USC, which disputes the allegations, declined comment, saying the grand jury report and its settlement agreement speak for themselves.
Palmetto Health retained RQ&A in 1996, and for more than 20 years paid the firm about $158,000 a year, according to the report.
Richard Quinn persuaded state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, a Quinn political consulting client who was on the Senate Medical Affairs Committee, to support a proposal that Palmetto Health wanted passed — related to the proposed acquisition, expansion or construction of new health care facilities, according to an email by a Palmetto Health executive.
Quinn also worked through U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, then a Quinn client, to expedite reviews by the Internal Revenue Service related to Palmetto Health’s acquisition of the Tuomey Healthcare System, according to the grand jury report. Quinn also facilitated a similar expedited review in 2009 for Palmetto’s acquisition of Baptist Easley Hospital, according to the report.
Palmetto Health said Tuesday the expedited reviews by the IRS “were proper requests.”
“We strongly deny all allegations and claims; Palmetto Health never engaged in any wrongdoing,” spokeswoman Tammie Epps said in a statement. “The Grand Jury report references a single isolated Certificate of Need (CON) issue in its investigation – one we contend was, at most, a technical and unintentional oversight, and was something we learned about only after it had occurred.”
In an email cited by the grand jury, AT&T president Lackey explained to a colleague that Quinn spoke to then-Rep. Merrill about his opposition to a bill that AT&T wanted passed and “told him to lose with dignity.” The bill addressed whether or not wireless providers would be required to pay into a fund that supports telecommunications access in rural communities.
AT&T paid the Quinn firm a retainer of $4,000 to $5,000 a month for more than two decades.
“The suggestion that AT&T had a role in any purported ‘pay-for-influence’ scheme is simply not true,” the company said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “The only allegations against AT&T were that we failed to register a lobbyist, and our agreement makes very clear that we deny those allegations but paid an agreed fine to avoid the burden of disputing them.”
Trial Lawyers Association
The S.C. Association for Justice, a trial lawyers’ group, secretly funneled more than $200,000 to defeat incumbent state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Oconee, according to the grand jury report.
Martin, a veteran senator, wanted to cap jury payouts in civil lawsuits.
The trial lawyers wanted higher caps on jury awards or no caps at all.
According to the grand jury report, emails between managing members of the legal group discussed efforts by Quinn to influence “his longtime, powerful friend Senator Glenn McConnell” to support a tort reform bill that was working its way through the S.C. Senate.
McConnell had proposed amendments, and the association was worried it would lose McConnell’s support for key aspects of the bill.
However, in an email cited by the grand jury, former association president Joseph “Pete” Strom said Quinn had “worked his magic,” convincing McConnell to support the trial lawyers.
Association counsel Heath Taylor of West Columbia said Tuesday the trial lawyers broke no campaign finance laws and disputed the report’s findings the group funneled money to defeat Martin.
“All of SCAJ’s contributions (in the Martin race) were made in 2012, and Sen. Martin was not defeated until the 2016 election cycle,” Taylor said.
However, the grand jury report includes emails sent in 2016 between Quinn and his employees about political mailers paid for by Better Future for Our Community. That group was created by RQ&A for the trial lawyers to target Martin, the report alleges.
Taylor, though, said SCAJ “made a conscious decision not to contribute to the mailers” during the 2016 election. And said the trial lawyers hired Richard & Quinn & Associates only for “public relations matters.”
“They were never hired to perform lobbying services,” he said. “We have adamantly denied that during the course of this investigation.”