South Carolina lawmaker indicted by state grand jury

Capitol Gains series highlighted his family business at center of criminal charges

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South Carolina state Rep. Rick Quinn used his public office as a multimillion-dollar money funnel that enriched his family’s powerful political empire while doing the bidding of shadowy corporate interests in the Legislature, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Misconduct charges handed down as part of the ongoing Statehouse corruption probe paint a picture of influence and greed involving a key cog in one of the state’s oldest and more durable political machines.

Quinn, a Lexington Republican, is accused of failing to report more than $4.5 million that unidentified groups had paid to companies operated by him and his father, embattled political consultant Richard Quinn. He then improperly lobbied on their behalf, using his businesses and public office to influence government actions involving those groups, the indictment stated.  

The scope of Quinn's alleged conduct is his entire legislative career, from January 1999 to April 15, and includes his 2006 run for state treasurer. 

Quinn, 51, also is accused of using his position to improperly steer $271,881 in Republican House Caucus funds to family businesses in which he had a financial interest. He funneled campaign cash to his and his father's companies, as well, the indictment states.

Quinn is the fourth lawmaker snared in the ongoing corruption probe led by 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe. His fate had been the subject of much speculation since news surfaced last year that he and his father had been named in a State Law Enforcement Division report detailing leads in the investigation. 

House Speaker Jay Lucas, a fellow Republican, quickly moved Tuesday to suspend Quinn from office until the matter is resolved. 

Quinn's father is a kingmaker in South Carolina politics, with a vast stable of clients and tentacles throughout state government. His firm represents more than 25 lawmakers, a couple of large state agencies and a quartet of the state's biggest corporations.

The younger Quinn also works as a campaign consultant and owns Mail Marketing Strategies, a Columbia-based direct-mail company that does work for politicians.

Rick Quinn is charged with one count of common law misconduct in office and one count of statutory misconduct in office. The first charge carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and an undetermined fine; the other, up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Quinn issued a written statement saying he has done nothing wrong and will ask for a speedy trial to resolve the case as quickly as possible.

"After nearly four years of investigation, Mr. Pascoe has accused me of conduct that the supervisory authorities said was legal and proper," he stated. "I have conducted myself in an honorable manner, and I look forward to clearing my family’s good name."

Quinn said the investigation has been unfair to him and his family, and he blamed his indictment on a political feud between Pascoe and Attorney General Alan Wilson, who last year tried to derail the special prosecutor's probe. Quinn said Pascoe is "a partisan Democrat" who covets Wilson's job. 

"It is my belief that this public fight between them is the real motivation since I have worked for the Attorney General’s past political campaigns," Quinn stated.

Citing the ongoing investigation, Pascoe declined to comment on the statement or Quinn's indictment. 

According to the indictment, Quinn routed business from the House Republican Caucus’s campaign and operating accounts to three companies in which he had a financial stake: First Impressions Inc., a business run by his father as Richard Quinn & Associates; Mail Marketing Strategies; and The Copy Shop. He served as House majority leader from 1999 to 2004, giving him considerable influence over the caucus and its members.

During this time, Quinn allegedly failed to disclose contributions and expenditures made to and from the caucus’ operating account, which were “improperly used for campaign purposes,” the indictment stated. He also used his position to drum up business for Mail Marketing Strategies from other lawmakers, the document said.

Quinn also is accused of filing fraudulent campaign disclosures and improperly benefiting from campaign donations by steering those funds to his and his father's firms.

The Post and Courier and the Center for Public Integrity first raised questions about Quinn's use of campaign donations in the 2015 series "Capitol Gains," which detailed how weak ethics laws allow South Carolina lawmakers to use their campaign war chests as personal ATM machines. 

The series detailed how Quinn poured more than $105,000 into his own company and his father's since 2009, accounting for nearly 80 percent of the campaign funds he spent. He has continued to do so since that time.

A new tally last week showed Quinn has used campaign funds to pay Richard Quinn & Associates more than $82,000 since 2009 for consulting services, surveys and political mailings, even though he owns his own direct-mail firm. The lawmaker also has shoveled more than $52,000 in campaign donations into his own company for similar services.

In a 2015 interview, Rick Quinn told The Post and Courier he prefers to hire companies owned by him and his father because it costs him less money: “If there was someone cheaper, I would use them."

Richard Quinn also told the newspaper he saw no problem with the arrangement.

“Why not use a family member you trust?”

The elder Quinn, who has not been charged with any crime, did not immediately return a call Tuesday seeking comment on the charges against his son. 

Contrary advice?

A bond hearing has not been set for Quinn. He will be allowed to accept service of the indictment and attend his bail hearing on the same date, according to a press release from Pascoe's office. The clerk of State Grand Jury would not comment Tuesday if a scheduled May 23 hearing in Columbia involving the Pascoe probe concerns Quinn.

Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said he was surprised by the indictment, as the charges seem to run counter to guidance given by the House Ethics Committee about the parameters of lawmaker conduct. Bannister served as House majority leader from 2012 to 2016.

“I know that the Ethics Committee has weighed in on all of these issues,” he said. “Some of the allegations are contrary to what the Ethics Committee has said are appropriate things.

“That struck me as an interesting question to answer. If the Ethics Committee tells you its OK, and then you’re indicted for it, that’s a difficult position to put members in,” Bannister said.

Over four decades, Richard Quinn has become something of a legend in South Carolina politics.

The indictment capped months of speculation surrounding the Quinns.

Investigators have collected records from Quinn's father's clients, including the University of South Carolina, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and SCANA. Former lawmakers who worked with Quinn have gone before the State Grand Jury to testify. The State newspaper reported in March that investigators raided the firm's offices and hauled away boxes of records. Soon after, a Quinn client, Sen. John Courson, was indicted on accusations of laundering $133,000 in campaign money through the consulting firm.

The SLED report in which the Quinns were named was used in the case that led to the 2014 guilty plea by then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, for pocketing campaign cash. The report also mentioned suspect actions by state Rep. Jim Merrill when the Charleston Republican headed the House GOP Caucus. Merrill was indicted in December on 30 ethics charges dating back to 2001, including lobbying while in office.

Massing influence

Over four decades, Richard Quinn has built an empire in South Carolina politics. On the national level, his clients have included Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond and John McCain. But the firm’s influence is much more pervasive on the state level, where his clients have included Gov. Henry McMaster, former Senate Leader Glenn McConnell, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson. Wilson's son, Alan, became the third straight Quinn client to win the attorney general's office, in 2010. State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman and state Treasurer Curtis Loftis won statewide seats with Quinn's help.

Quinn's legislative clients have chaired committees that oversee the budget, education and legal issues. They also included three straight House GOP caucus leaders, including his son, who entered the Statehouse race at age 23 in 1989.

Rick Quinn serves on the House Judiciary Committee, a panel that is a key conduit for legislation affecting some of his father’s clients, including the S.C. Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group. He also formerly served on the House Education and Public Works Committee at around the same his father’s firm was working for the University of South Carolina to, among other things, help cut regulatory hurdles for colleges and win money needed to build the new $80 million law school.

Rick Quinn has said he and his father keep their business affairs separate. They do, however, operate in the same political sphere, share some of the same clients and operate out of family-owned buildings on the same block of Columbia's Gervais Street, just down the street from the Statehouse. Both also operated for a time out of side-by-side offices in a Cayce building owned by former state Rep. Kenny Bingham, a fellow Richard Quinn & Associates client and Republican who chaired the House Ethics Committee.

McMaster's office did not respond to a request for comment about the Quinn's indictment Tuesday. McMaster revealed Friday that he is not going to work with Richard Quinn & Associates in the 2018 race, instead hiring the campaign manager who led Nikki Haley to two wins as governor.

Quinn's indictment came just about a year after one of his allies, the attorney general, tried to fire Pascoe from the corruption probe. Richard Quinn & Associates ran Wilson's campaigns for attorney general in 2010 and 2014, and Wilson has continued to pay Quinn for work on his 2018 re-election bid. In all, Wilson has paid RQA $471,000 since 2009 for campaign-related work.

Wilson appointed Pascoe special prosecutor of the corruption probe but later tried to block the Dorchester County Democrat's efforts to use the State Grand Jury in the investigation, calling the move an overreach on Pascoe's part. Wilson torched the special prosecutor in a fiery news conference, calling Pascoe a liar, “tainted” and said he wasn’t even his fifth choice for the job. Pascoe, in turn, accused Wilson of interfering with the investigation. 

The dispute landed before the state Supreme Court, which dealt Wilson a humbling blow by siding with Pascoe and allowing the special prosecutor to maintain control of the probe. 

Post and Courier reporters Maya T. Prabhu, Andy Shain, Andrew Brown and Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.

This story was published in The Post and Courier.

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