YOU CAN EASILY argue that former Rep. Rick Quinn should have been required to pay restitution or a higher fine or even cover the cost of the corruption investigation against him, or ordered to do more community service or serve a longer probationary period. But it’s hard to argue that he should have been sent to prison, for two reasons.
The first reason is the crime to which he pleaded guilty. I think it’s a huge deal anytime a politician disobeys ethics reporting requirements; after all, our ethics law is based on giving voters information about politicians’ potential conflicts of interest and letting the voters police the politicians’ ethics. But state law does not consider reporting violations to be particularly significant. And as Judge Carmen Mullen noted in court, she could only sentence Mr. Quinn based on the crime to which he pleaded guilty, not all those charges that were dropped in return for his plea.
As much as I believe in the value of plea agreements and appreciate the financial strain the trial would have put on Solicitor David Pascoe’s office, there’s a part of me that wishes this case had gone to trial. I would love to know whether Mr. Pascoe could have delivered on what sounded in court like significant evidence, or whether Mr. Quinn could have backed up his contention that the prosecutor was cherry-picking his facts and ignoring stronger exculpatory evidence.
More importantly, it would have been good to find out whether our ethics law really is as tough as the charges suggested, or whether it is as weak as I and other ethics advocates have always believed, and those charges stretched it beyond recognition. That answer would have given valuable guidance to legislators about changes that need to be made to the law. Not that they would have been likely to make them.
But even if the case had gone to trial, and even if Mr. Quinn had been found guilty on all the counts — of making more than $4 million by working to pass legislation to help clients — a no-prison sentence still would have been appropriate, for the second and more significant reason: With rare and extraordinary exceptions, we don’t need to send first-time non-violent offenders to prison.
It’s not a question of whether Mr. Quinn or anyone else deserves prison. The question is whether taxpayers should have to pay for room and board and medical care for people who do not pose a danger to society. And that question is the same whether the criminal is a politician or not.
Even if you want to stretch “danger to society” way beyond the physical danger that we all know it refers to, whatever danger Mr. Quinn posed to society flowed from his ability to affect our laws. The moment he resigned from the House, he lost that ability.
This is why judges were also right when they didn’t give prison sentences to former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard and former Sen. Robert Ford and former Rep. Jim Merrill. And yes, former House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
I don’t mean to suggest that those and other white-collar criminals shouldn’t be punished harshly. We need to have punishments for them that are as severe as the punishments for blue-collar criminals, and our Legislature needs to create some harsher non-prison sentences, especially for politicians.
But just as should be the case with non-violent drug criminals, those punishments need to place the financial burden on the criminals, not the taxpayers.
(Several lawmakers convicted in Operation Lost Trust were given prison sentences, and if I had been an editorial writer at the time, I suspect I would have questioned that. I would note — not with approval but merely for the record — that Lost Trust was tried in federal court, it occurred before the idea that we shouldn’t lock up everybody began gaining traction outside the most liberal circles, and those lawmakers were convicted of taking money in return for their votes — which probably isn’t as bad as what Mr. Quinn was accused of doing, but which the public considers far worse.)
Mr. Pascoe, who supported the no-prison sentences for Mr. Harrell and Mr. Merrill, argued that Mr. Quinn deserved prison because he was more corrupt than anyone else in Columbia. Perhaps from a prosecutor’s perspective, he was; I can’t say for sure because, again, we didn’t get that trial.
But even if all the allegations against Mr. Quinn had been proven, what he did wouldn’t have come close to what Mr. Harrell did. I don’t mean the part about Mr. Harrell reimbursing himself for flights he never took; that truly was not as bad as what Mr. Pascoe says Mr. Quinn did. I mean the things Mr. Harrell did after questions were raised about the things he did.
Mr. Harrell not only profited from his office. He tried, repeatedly, to use the power of his office to change state laws in order to quash a criminal investigation, and to prevent his own prosecution. That might not be a crime, but like a lot of things in South Carolina that are not crimes, it is exponentially more corrupt than pocketing money you’re not entitled to.
And yet, Mr. Pascoe was absolutely right to agree to a plea deal that kept Mr. Harrell out of prison. The Harrell conviction was valuable because it removed Mr. Harrell from office. The same result occurred in the Quinn case.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.