IT WAS AUGUST of 1990 and our state was still trying to comprehend the enormity of Operation Lost Trust when then-Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore called together five senators and four representatives for a “Legislative Conference on Ethics” to draft a plan to reform our state’s then-anemic ethics and campaign finance laws.
Among the participants was Sen. John Courson, and one of the first reforms endorsed was making it illegal to use campaign money for personal expenses — the crime Mr. Courson was charged last week with committing.
Shocked? Stunned? Dumbfounded? Like so very many people here in Columbia and across the state, I can’t come up with a word strong enough to describe my reaction to that indictment. I have known and respected Sen. Courson for nearly 30 years, and I don’t remember a single time I’ve had reason to question his integrity.
Although I disagreed with him on some proposed reforms — I don’t think he ever truly accepted that the Senate Ethics Committee needed to relinquish the power to investigate legislators to an outside body — he has always been what he called a goo-goo Republican: an advocate of good-government initiatives. He was at the forefront of the fight for stronger ethics and campaign finance laws long before anyone outside a tight circle of reformers was talking about the topic.
Mr. Courson was so committed to those “goo-goo” ideas that he participated on Mr. Theodore’s mostly Democratic panel even though the lieutenant governor clearly was trying to burnish his ethics-reform credentials in a tight election campaign against Henry McMaster, a decades-long friend and political ally of Mr. Courson.
While it might not initially seem as important to the life of our state as the 2014 indictment of then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, this indictment is more shocking than anything since the 1990 federal sting that prompted the passage of that 1991 law against converting campaign donations to personal use, and lots of others. And it was the sheer enormity of Lost Trust — certainly not the names on the indictments — that made that so shocking.
So Mr. Courson’s indictment could actually turn out to be far more significant than any of the previous ones — for what it could do to the fragile strands of trust in government that so many South Carolinians cling to. As a friend said to me before Mass on Sunday, “I thought he was the one good guy we still had in the Legislature.”
I assured her that there are in fact several other honest legislators but accepted her general premise about Mr. Courson’s integrity — and assured her that we do not know at this point that he is not a good guy.
I hope with all of my being that he has a good explanation for why, as the indictment alleges, he paid Richard Quinn and Associates $247,829.81 from his campaign account and then received $132,802.95 back from the company “personally” — that is, not into his campaign account. (He is also charged with “misconduct in office,” which, as I explained in January, does not require the defendant to be convicted of committing any actions we typically consider crimes, but can apply even when he acts legally but with the intention of enriching himself.)
But the indictment looks bad: Unlike the December indictments against Rep. Jim Merrill — many of which charge him with doing things that ought to be against the law but are not — Mr. Courson is charged with doing something that, thanks in no small part to his own efforts, is clearly against the law.
In order to avoid a conviction, Mr. Courson merely has to raise legal doubts about the case against him. But the John Courson I know wants to do more than that. The John Courson I have known and admired for decades wants to preserve his sterling reputation.
If that’s what he wants — if he wants simultaneously to help preserve our fragile faith that there might be “one good guy” left in the Legislature — he can’t simply have his attorney go around yelling “partisan witch hunt.” He needs to explain to us how those payments were legal — or else why a prosecutor would believe he received money he did not receive. He needs, in other words, to prove his innocence to us.
I realize that every attorney reading this is screaming, “Are you out of your mind?” But I’m not talking about changing the standard for conviction. And if Mr. Courson did not violate the law, he would not harm himself by telling us why he received those payments.
It should be a simple enough thing to do: He needs to explain why, if those were legitimate reimbursements for expenses of his office, they were not listed on his campaign finance reports.
And he needs to do this soon, because every day that passes without his explanation increases the public presumption of guilt, and makes whatever happens in a courtroom seem less like an explanation and more like an excuse.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.