Cindi Ross Scoppe

Did Rep Rick Quinn violate ethics law? Does it really matter?

SC Rep Rick Quinn, second from right, was charged Tuesday with misconduct in office. With him are Reps James Smith,Todd Rutherford and Bill Clyburn.
SC Rep Rick Quinn, second from right, was charged Tuesday with misconduct in office. With him are Reps James Smith,Todd Rutherford and Bill Clyburn. tdominick@thestate.com

IF REP. RICK Quinn violated the state ethics law, he did so boldly and brazenly and in plain view.

If he violated the ethics law, it likely was by doing something that was perfectly legal under the 1991 overhaul of our ethics law but was outlawed in an obscure 2011 change to the ethics law. (How obscure? I can’t find any news coverage of it, and I didn’t even write about it — and you know how obsessed I am with strengthening the ethics law.)

Under the 1991 law, public officials couldn’t vote or take any other official action that would financially benefit themselves, their businesses or their immediate family members — generally their spouse and minor children. Legislators routinely recuse themselves from voting on bills because of this provision.

But in 2011, the Legislature changed “member of his immediate family” to “family members,” and greatly expanded the scope of the law. Suddenly it was illegal for Mr. Quinn to vote or otherwise act to advance legislation in which his father (or grandparents or sister or brother-in-law, for that matter) has “an economic interest.”

Most of the allegations in the State Grand Jury indictments handed down against him on Tuesday either lack enough detail to make heads or tails of or else say he did things that state law does not seem to prohibit. Chief among them, that blockbuster charge that he steered House Republican Caucus business to his and his father’s companies — which well-reasoned opinions from the House Ethics Committee and the attorney general’s office have declared perfectly legal.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

But it seems reasonable to believe that Rep. Quinn voted for a lot of bills that benefited his father’s political clients.

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Quinn vows to fight, blasts prosecutor’s ‘witch hunt’

Quinn Indictment 2

Quinn Indictment 1

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After all, Richard Quinn’s client list has included USC, the State Ports Authority, SCANA, BlueCross BlueShield and the state trial lawyers, all of which frequently want things from the Legislature. I haven’t checked Mr. Quinn’s voting record, but it does not seem believable that Solicitor David Pascoe would have pursued these and related allegations if Rep. Quinn had recused himself.

In fact, Rep. Quinn’s go-to defense when questioned about his father’s business has not been to say he didn’t vote on issues involving his father’s clients but to say he and his father were not business partners. (The indictment seems to allege that they were, but that part could be read differently.) What all of this means is that Mr. Quinn was routinely and openly and unapologetically voting for legislation that would benefit his father’s clients, often when everyone knew they were his father’s clients.

Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be a crime. Clearly, Rep. Quinn’s father would benefit by showing prospective clients how frequently his existing clients get what they want out of the Legislature. But it might not be so easy to prove in court that helping his father’s clients helped his father.

Rep. Quinn is not actually charged with violating the ethics provisions cited in the indictments.

And here’s where this case gets so fascinating. Mr. Quinn is not actually charged with violating that part of the law. For that matter, he is not charged with violating other ethics provisions that are alluded to in the indictments, such as the one that prohibits converting campaign donations to personal use, or requires him to report receiving money or goods from businesses that employ lobbyists.

Those allegations are simply listed as what you might call supporting evidence for the only crimes he is accused of committing: statutory and common-law misconduct in office.

And, again contrary to what you’d think if you didn’t read them too closely, theindictments don’t allege that Mr. Quinn did all of the things on the supporting-evidence list. Each of the first eight of nine alleged types of wrongdoing ends with “and/or.” That means the grand jury could simply be alleging that Rep. Quinn did one of those things.

Our state Supreme Court says misconduct in office can mean acting legally but corruptly. It can mean simply acting to defile the office.

I can’t explain the “and/or” construction, but as I explained in an earlier column, a public official can be convicted of committing “misconduct in office” merely for doing things that look bad — without ever violating any specific law. Our state Supreme Court has said it can mean “misfeasance,” which is acting in a way that is corrupt even if it is not illegal. That is, acting to defile the office.

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When dishonest intent is enough to send you to prison

Some unethical actions are illegal in SC; lots aren’t

Attorney general’s opinion points to more repairs needed to tattered ethics law

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I still haven’t decided what I think about that, but I have to agree with a criminal law expert who noted that if Mr. Pascoe can win misconduct convictions without proving any underlying crimes, “We’ve now criminalized the Ethics Act.” That is, the civil violations in that law can be used to prove this vague criminal violation.

Of course, the question is whether Mr. Pascoe can win convictions. I would give him better odds against Rep. Jim Merrill, because some of the things he’s accused of doing make any decent person want to go take a shower.

The things Mr. Quinn is accused of doing aren’t as egregious, and I suspect a prosecutor would have a particularly difficult time convicting him for the actions that ethics officials told him were legal.

But given how the public feels about politicians, it might not be very difficult to convince a jury that he has acted in a way that defiled his office.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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