Cindi Ross Scoppe

How Quinn indictment could upend Columbia’s influence industry

David Pascoe (l) and Richard Quinn
David Pascoe (l) and Richard Quinn

SOME MEN collect fine wines, expensive cars, younger women.

Richard Quinn collects state legislators, U.S. senators and statewide constitutional officers. He also collects some of the state’s most powerful businesses and business-like government agencies.

The Republican kingmaker tends to his business collection by crafting the message that his clients use to convince the government to approve policies that benefit them. He tends to his political collection by advising his candidates on which positions are most likely to get them re-elected.

This is not in dispute, even though it is an inherently corrupt arrangement. It is corrupt because it creates the possibility that along the way he may tell his legislators to support some policies that also benefit the businesses whose messages he has crafted. It is corrupt because the arrangement tempts legislators to put the interests of special interests ahead of the interests of the public — sometimes, perhaps, without even recognizing that they are doing that.

What I expect will be in dispute, once more details come out, is whether this inherently corrupt arrangement is actually illegal.

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The long-anticipated indictments handed down against Mr. Quinn on Wednesday imply that he convinced his legislative clients or legislators on his payroll to vote for the interests of his business clients, and thus became a lobbyist. And lobbying without registering is the crime on which all the other charges against Mr. Quinn and the two current and former legislators indicted along with him hang.

I say “imply” because the indictments are so lacking in details that we have no idea how Mr. Quinn is alleged to have crossed the line. We don’t even know which business clients he is alleged to have lobbied for. SCANA? AT&T? Blue Cross Blue Shield? USC? The Ports Authority? Palmetto Health? The trial lawyers? A lesser-known business?

Now, if one or more of Mr. Quinn’s business clients actually hired him to work directly to convince legislators to support their positions — and not simply to craft the message that was used to influence legislators indirectly — then he clearly violated the law. And the House that Quinn built almost certainly would crumble, perhaps burying some top-tier elected officials in the rubble.

But what if his business clients did not pay him to do this? What if his business clients didn’t even know he did this — or at least didn’t know for sure — and never asked him to do it? What if he directed the two legislators on his payroll (three if his son did in fact work for him) to take votes that would help his business clients — without his business clients knowing he was doing this?

Or what if he made the decision on his own to advise his political clients to take votes that would help his business clients? What if he did that either because he honestly concluded that the positions that help his business clients are the ones that will get his political clients re-elected — or because he believed those legislative wins for his business clients would make his business more attractive to other business clients?

I ask because it’s hard to believe that the businesses that hired him would be stupid enough to actually ask someone to lobby without registering as a lobbyist, which is a clear violation of the law.

State law defines a lobbyist as someone who is “employed … by another person to influence by direct communication with public officials” the official actions those officials take. And up until now, it seemed clear that the only way someone could be, say, a SCANA lobbyist was if SCANA specifically asked him to lobby the Legislature.

The most far-reaching question in this case is whether the courts will require Solicitor David Pascoe to prove that SCANA or Blue Cross Blue Shield of USC or whoever the indictment involves actually intended for Mr. Quinn to lobby on its behalf. If the courts require that, then either the prosecution will prove that or else Mr. Quinn will walk free; either way, there will be no long-lasting legal implications to this case.

If they don’t require that, well … wow.

If the courts decide that you can be a lobbyist without anyone asking you to be a lobbyist, then our ethics law suddenly will be much broader than anyone ever imagined.

That new interpretation of the law would transform the way the influence industry works the State House, by removing the thin line between “lobbyist” and “consultant” that the Legislature has repeatedly refused to remove.

That new interpretation would make it politically difficult for consultants to engage in the inherently corrupt practice of working simultaneously for legislators and people who want legislative favors.

That would be a wonderful change, a change that is long overdue, although I don’t think I’d be comfortable with the court making this change instead of the Legislature.

But if it happens, then Mr. Pascoe’s corruption investigation will indeed turn out to be the most cataclysmic event at the State House since Operation Lost Trust felled a tenth of the Legislature and spawned an overhaul of the state’s ethics law a generation ago.

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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