Powerful South Carolina political consultant implicated in indictments of a veteran state senator

Investigation echoes findings of Capitol Gains series

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 Updated:

March 17, 2017: This story has been updated.

A powerful South Carolina political consultant featured in a Center for Public Integrity/Post and Courier investigation is implicated in indictments accusing a state senator of pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations for his personal use.

Sen. John Courson of Columbia is charged with three counts: two for misconduct in office and one for converting campaign cash for personal expenses. A bond hearing date has not been set.

Courson, 72, is accused of funneling nearly $250,000 from his campaign war chest through the political consulting firm of First Impressions, doing business as Richard Quinn and Associates, according to the indictments. The Quinn company then shifted about $133,000 of that money back to Courson through multiple transactions, the charging documents allege. 

Courson’s indictment came a little more than a week after the Republican was first contacted by State Law Enforcement Division investigators who said they wanted to chat with him about his political consultant Richard Quinn, a key figure in the probe.

Courson retained an attorney, who was informed over the weekend that the senator was now the subject of an investigation, according to sources with knowledge of the case.

Courson's lawyer, former assistant U.S. Attorney Rose Mary Parham of Florence, issued a statement Friday morning blasting the charges as a "partisan witch hunt"  by a "politically motivated prosecutor." She said Courson is ready for a jury to hear the case immediately "to put an end to these ridiculous charges once and for all."

"Everyone knows Senator Courson is a man of unquestionable integrity who would never use his public office for personal gain in any way," she said.

Courson’s indictment is the latest in an ongoing corruption probe by special prosecutor 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe. Pascoe noted in a press release that Courson is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but otherwise had no comment on the indictments, citing the ongoing investigating. 

Since 2009, Courson’s campaign spent more than $500,000 on his state Senate races, according to a database compiled by The Post and Courier and the Center for Public Integrity. Of that sum, about $445,000 went to Richard Quinn and Associates for mailers, postage and “TV production, airtime, consulting,” according to an analysis of his campaign disclosure forms.

Quinn and his son Rick, a Republican representative from Lexington, have been key players in South Carolina politics for decades, often playing kingmaker for some of the state’s most prominent elected officials. In 1978, Richard Quinn founded Richard Quinn & Associates, a political consulting company.

On the national level, the elder Quinn worked for such candidates as Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond, Lindsey Graham and John McCain. On the state level, his clients included now-Gov. Henry McMaster, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and former state Sen. Glenn McConnell. They’ve managed hundreds of state and local campaigns, and the firm’s influence was such that some Columbia observers have called Quinn and his candidates, “the Quinndom.”

The father and son team were named in a 2013 State Law Enforcement Division investigative report that led to a guilty plea by then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell for misusing campaign cash. But no charges have been filed against them, and they have maintained they have done nothing wrong in their Statehouse dealings.

The Quinns also were featured in "Capitol Gains,” the 2015 series produced by The Post and Courier and The Center for Public Integrity. That series explored how South Carolina’s loophole-ridden campaign finance system and ethics laws allow state lawmakers to use campaign war chests like personal ATM machines and profit from government connections.

The Post and Courier reported this week that Statehouse probe investigators have obtained a copy of an audit that alleges the Quinns helped orchestrate Henry McMaster’s 2000 re-election as S.C. GOP party chairman by funneling money from their political firms into the party’s empty bank account. McMaster, a longtime client of Richard Quinn, became governor in January after Nikki Haley resigned to become United Nations ambassador.

(Update, March 17, 2017, 1:23 p.m.: When reached by phone Friday afternoon, Richard Quinn declined to speak specifically about Courson’s indictment — or the report of his firm’s inclusion in a 2004 audit of the SC Republican Party.

“All I can say is that the allegations are false,” he said. “Beyond that I don’t have any other comment right now.”

His son did not return calls seeking comment.)

Courson, a fellow Quinn client, has a long history in South Carolina Republican politics going back to the days when Strom Thurmond was one of the state’s two U.S. senators in Washington. He was elected to the state Senate in 1985 and served as Senate President Pro Tempore from 2012 to 2014. He currently serves as chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He represents parts of Richland and Lexington counties and is one of the Senate’s senior members.

Courson’s indictment came as a surprise to many who considered the 32-year senator a genteel politician with a sterling reputation. He received a career award from government watchdog Common Cause in 2013 for his work on ethics reform legislation.

Courson often chats about baseball and history. He is proud of being among South Carolina’s Republican pioneers who eventually would lead to the party’s control of the Statehouse and state congressional delegation, showing off mementos from Republican national conventions dating back to 1976 that decorate his Statehouse office walls. Courson, who is senior vice president at the Keenan & Suggs insurance firm, prides himself as something of a gentleman in the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of South Carolina Statehouse politics.

In 2014, he didn’t challenge powerful Republican Sen. Hugh Leatherman, who rose to take Courson’s job as senate leader — a move that another senator called a “hit.” Courson did not want an ugly fight among senators who could not refuse Leatherman because he had control over the state budget.

Ironically, Leatherman and Courson share the same political consultant — Quinn.

The move against Courson marks the third set of indictments handed down in the ongoing investigation and also puts the Quinns firmly in the crosshairs of Pascoe’s probe.

The probe has been going on for several years. In 2014, former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, pleaded guilty to improperly using campaign money to reimburse himself for personal expenses, including trips he took in his private plane. As part of his plea agreement, Harrell agreed to cooperate in any investigation of the Statehouse.

In December, Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, was indicted on 30 charges of ethics and misconduct violations, that Pascoe alleges show a pattern that Merrill accepted or solicited more then $1 million from groups with Statehouse legislation at stake during his 15-year career in Columbia.

Post and Courier reporters Tony Bartelme and Maya Prabhu contributed to this report. 

A version of this story was published in The Post and Courier.

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