Suspended senator John Courson pleads guilty to common law misconduct in office
A few days after he resigned from the S.C. Senate and pleaded guilty to misconduct in office, Columbia Republican John Courson asked the state Department of Transportation to remove the signs bearing his name from a state road.
But another former state senator, who pleaded guilty to corruption in 2015, says he earned the right to have a Charleston road named after him and won’t give up the honor.
“If anybody on this planet deserves a road named after him, it’s Robert Ford,” the Charleston Democrat told The State Friday, using the third person to refer to himself, citing his 21 years as a state senator.
Unseemly exits from the S.C. General Assembly can create a host of awkward circumstances. Among them: What to do with the state roads or buildings named after politicians who have admitted to corruption?
A State House corruption probe that led to the indictment of four legislators and two former lawmakers only added to the questions.
In response to an emailed question from The State, the Transportation Department identified two state roads named after lawmakers who recently entered guilty pleas to corruption charges.
Those are the former John Courson Interchange — where Interstate 126 meets Huger Street and Elmwood Avenue in downtown Columbia — and the Robert Ford Port Connector, a road from I-26 to the Port of Charleston.
‘The appropriate action’
The commission that oversees the Transportation Department named the downtown Columbia interchange after Courson nearly 20 years ago.
Courson joked Friday the department suggested the interchange because it is by far most functional one on traffic-clogged I-126. The Republican also liked the idea that drivers actually were happy to see it, as opposed to the infamous Malfunction Junction, farther north on the interstate.
One of the most popular members of the state Senate, Courson was indicted last November and charged with using kickbacks from his longtime political consultant, Richard Quinn, to pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash. He resigned after 33 years in the Senate on June 4 and pleaded guilty to one count of official misconduct.
Four days later, records show Courson emailed a Transportation Department official about removing the signs bearing his name from the Columbia interchange. A few days later, during a trip up I-126, Courson and his wife noticed they were gone.
“If felt the appropriate action to take was to ask that the signs be removed,” Courson said. “I learned in the Marines that one must take responsibility for one’s mistakes.”
‘Earned the right’
Former state Sen. Ford, however, says he won’t take his name off the Charleston port connector, which he calls “The Road to Immortality” in a written listing of his accomplishments as a senator.
The 21-year Senate veteran said he earned that recognition while fighting for key projects.
Specifically, Ford said he persuaded a colleague to deliver the final vote that secured funding for Charleston’s Ravenel Bridge and worked with state agencies for more than three years on a plan to expand Charleston’s port without forcing residents of Charleston’s Neck community out of their homes.
“When they named that stuff after me, I was one elected official that really deserved that because I worked on it,” Ford said. “People get their names on a lot of stuff, but they didn’t earn it. I earned the right for my name to be on there. No ethics misdemeanor should stop that.”
Ford was given a suspended, seven-year sentence in 2015 for using thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for personal expenses. He had pleaded guilty to misconduct in office, forgery and two counts of ethics violations, and had to pay $69,000 to the state in restitution.
Ford complained Friday he could have beaten the charges if he had the money to fight them in court. He said his guilty plea shouldn’t affect the road’s name.
Ford, who worked to remove the Confederate flag from the State House dome in 2000, drew a comparison to the Confederate generals who still are honored across South Carolina.
“Those gentlemen committed treason against the United States government, but they honored them with statues,” Ford said. “I never protested the naming of those buildings and statues after those gentlemen because, at the time, they did what was best in their minds for South Carolina.”