ATTORNEY GENERAL Alan Wilson crossed a line when he consulted Richard Quinn about a letter Mr. Wilson had written to Solicitor David Pascoe. It wasn’t the line that critics are focusing on, and it wasn’t a resign or be removed from office kind of line, but it was a line he never should have crossed.
What everyone is focusing on is the fact that Mr. Quinn is now a subject, perhaps the target, of Mr. Pascoe’s legislative corruption probe. But at the time that Mr. Wilson asked Mr. Quinn to review the letter, he was not.
At that time, Mr. Quinn’s name was merely mentioned in a SLED report about Bobby Harrell, who had just resigned as House speaker and pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Mr. Mr. Wilson had handed the Harrell case to Mr. Pascoe in order to do an end run around a judge who was trying to shut down Mr. Wilson’s own investigation.
The section of the SLED report that mentioned Mr. Quinn and his son, Rep. Rick Quinn, and Rep. Jim Merrill has never been made public. But reporters from The State got a look at it last year, and their news stories show that Richard Quinn was only mentioned as a point of reference.
Rep. Merrill had told SLED agents that — like Rep. Quinn before him — he had referred Republican Caucus business to his own political consulting company when he served as House Republican leader. The report noted that Rep. Quinn’s business “was run by Rick Quinn and/or his father Richard Quinn in Columbia SC.” That apparently was all the report said about the elder Mr. Quinn.
Although I was never convinced that the SLED allegations about Reps. Quinn and Merrill constituted criminal acts, Mr. Pascoe has since found other actions that, if proven, would be illegal. And it looks like he has turned his focus to the elder Mr. Quinn.
But none of that was known when Mr. Wilson asked Richard Quinn to review the letter, which reminded Mr. Pascoe that he had only been assigned to prosecute Mr. Harrell. It said that if Mr. Harrell provided any information that led to other criminal investigations, the attorney general’s office would have jurisdiction.
So Mr. Wilson was not asking for advice from a target of the investigation, which would have been a resign or be removed from office sort of infraction. And worse.
What he was doing — what no prosecutor should do — was consulting his political adviser about a criminal case. Mr. Wilson points out that he was not asking how to prosecute a case. He says his concern was to get through the exchange with “a cordial relationship” with Mr. Pascoe intact; and indeed, Mr. Quinn suggested removing some snark and making the letter more diplomatic. (In the end, Mr. Wilson called Mr. Pascoe rather than sending a letter.)
But the underlying topic was still a criminal matter.
Pretend that Mr. Wilson’s consultant had been named John Smith or Jane Jones or anything other than Richard Quinn. Pretend that his political consultant had never met Richard Quinn or Rick Quinn or Jim Merrill. Pretend that Alan Wilson was the only South Carolinian his political consultant had ever heard of. It still would have been inappropriate for Mr. Wilson to consult him. It simply is not acceptable for a prosecutor to seek political advice about anything involving his job as a prosecutor.
Frankly, I’d rather attorneys general not seek political advice about anything — not prosecutions, not legal opinions, not those politically motivated lawsuits they file. Frankly, I’d rather no elected officials sought political advice about how they perform their duties in office, that they focused on serving the public rather than the political ramifications of their actions.
If I were dictator, this would be the law. But of course I’m not dictator, and there’s no way we can bar most elected officials from governing in the image of their political consultants. (I realize that many of you have sprained eyes now from all the rolling they’ve been doing since the beginning of the previous paragraph. But this is how government ought to work.)
Even if we can’t make it work like that anywhere else, there is one place we ought to be able to insist that politics be kept out: in criminal matters.
Mr. Wilson agrees — to a point. He says he rarely talks with “outside people.” He says he has never talked to Mr. Quinn about “anything criminal or investigative or anything that would be prohibited by ethical canons or law or office practice.” He says he realizes he should not have consulted him this time — because his job is to protect the integrity of his office, and discussing his letter with Mr. Quinn allowed people to doubt that.
I’d feel more comfortable if he understood that he should never discuss office business — particularly if it touches even tangentially on prosecutorial matters — with a political consultant. But that likely would make him an anomaly in the attorney general’s office.
In and of itself, I don’t think this should be a career-ending mistake for Mr. Wilson. But everything an elected official does wrong and everything he does right must be tallied up, and then measured against his opponent in the next election. This one definitely goes in the “did wrong” category.
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.