REP. TODD Atwater asked me the other day to watch a video with what he considered outrageous claims by Attorney General Alan Wilson about the criminal investigation of political consultant Richard Quinn. Since I’ve been feeling guilty about not paying attention to this year’s attorney general campaign, I did.
I didn’t see anything outrageous in the April 30 debate among the Republican candidates — Mr. Atwater, Mr. Wilson and William Herlong.
Instead, I was reminded of how tough it’s going to be for conscientious voters to sort out the issue in this campaign: Mr. Wilson’s behavior after Solicitor David Pascoe started investigating Mr. Quinn, who until last year was the attorney general’s political consultant and confidant.
Some of Mr. Wilson’s actions were clearly unprofessional and inappropriate: holding that peevish news conference attacking Mr. Pascoe; not immediately firing his employee who tried to engineer a political smear campaign against Mr. Pascoe; asking Mr. Quinn to help him draft a letter to Mr. Pascoe about a criminal investigation.
But we need to understand what happened when, and what was known when, in order to decide how bad those actions were. And voters aren’t getting much help doing this.
It’s tempting to say that Mr. Atwater and the more combative Mr. Herlong are deliberately confusing us. But I’ve known Mr. Atwater pleasantly for more than 20 years, and I find it hard to believe that he would make a point of asking me to review that video unless he really believed that what Mr. Wilson said was inaccurate. And Mr. Wilson is doing an awful job himself of explaining himself.
The problem is that what started in 2013 as a corruption investigation of now-former House Speaker Bobby Harrell took so many disturbing twists and turns and lasted for so long. It eventually morphed into the December 2017 hearing in which former Rep. Rick Quinn pleaded guilty to a minor reporting offense in exchange for the charges being dropped against his father, Richard.
Along the way, Mr. Harrell used disturbing political and legal maneuvers to try to quash the investigation. Mr. Wilson managed to keep the probe alive by handing it off to Mr. Pascoe. Mr. Pascoe pressed for an investigation of the Quinns. Mr. Wilson agreed but recused himself, and later a deputy gave the Quinn investigation to Mr. Pascoe. Mr. Pascoe attempted a legal maneuver that state legislators never intended, and Mr. Wilson tried to remove him from the case. Mr. Pascoe sued to keep the case, and Mr. Wilson responded with an angry, over-the-top news conference attacking the solicitor. The state Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Pascoe’s favor, but made a point of saying it was creating new law in order to allow the legal maneuver Mr. Wilson had objected to. Mr. Pascoe went on to bring criminal corruption charges against the senior Mr. Quinn and several legislators.
Today, Mr. Herlong and Mr. Atwater say Mr. Wilson enabled a culture of corruption by ignoring how Mr. Quinn used his relationship with his political clients to advance the interests of his special-interest clients. At the debate, Mr. Herlong claimed that Mr. Quinn helped the attorney general write a letter to stop Mr. Pascoe from investigating Mr. Quinn. Mr. Wilson denied that the letter was an attempt to fire Mr. Pascoe or that Mr. Quinn was being investigated — which is the main thing that left Mr. Atwater incredulous.
I agree that it was completely unacceptable for Mr. Wilson to seek Mr. Quinn’s help — because he was a political consultant, and prosecutors should never, ever, ever seek political advice about anything even touching on criminal matters.
But Mr. Wilson’s denials are accurate: Mr. Quinn wasn’t a target at the time. The letter was written in October 2014, right after Mr. Harrell pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with Mr. Pascoe. It said that since Mr. Pascoe had only been assigned to prosecute Mr. Harrell, the attorney general’s office would have jurisdiction over any other investigations that grew out of Mr. Harrell’s cooperation. At that time, Mr. Quinn was essentially a point of reference in SLED’s report about Mr. Harrell.
According to that report, then-Rep. Jim. Merrill told SLED agents that he had referred House Republican Caucus business to his own political consulting company when he chaired the caucus; he said then-Rep. Quinn had done the same thing. 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 the only mention of the elder Mr. Quinn in the report, an un-redacted copy of which has not been released but which has been reviewed by reporters at The State.
I was never convinced that the allegations in the SLED report about then-Reps. Quinn and Merrill constituted criminal acts, but Mr. Pascoe’s investigation found other disturbing activities and secured guilty pleas from both men. The elder Mr. Quinn’s business pleaded guilty to failing to register as a lobbyist.
No one could have foreseen any of that when Mr. Wilson asked Mr. Quinn to review his letter — which he absolutely should not have done, but which did not involve or attempt to aid the target of a criminal investigation.
I still haven’t decided whether Mr. Wilson’s behavior in this whole matter outweighs his positives. Or whether one of his opponents would be a better choice. But I can understand how reasonable people could conclude that he ought to be replaced — as long as they understand what was and wasn’t known when that letter was written.
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.