S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson is trying to fire a special prosecutor handling a Statehouse corruption probe that includes two close political allies named in a State Law Enforcement Division investigative report, according to sources familiar with the document.
The SLED report cites state Rep. Rick Quinn, a Lexington Republican, and his father, political consultant Richard Quinn. Also named is state Rep. Jim Merrill, a Charleston Republican who like the younger Quinn once held the powerful House majority leader post.
The revelation is the latest in an unfolding drama addressing questions about money and influence at the Statehouse and the Attorney General’s Office.
It also comes amid a heated legislative battle over ethics reform and how lawmakers police themselves.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who was handpicked by Wilson to investigate lawmaker corruption, has accused Wilson of trying to impede his investigation. The S.C. Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether Wilson has the authority to fire Pascoe and prevent him from using the state grand jury to investigate corruption allegations.
Late Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to let Wilson’s filing in his feud with Pascoe from last week be open to the public.
Long considered a force in South Carolina politics, the Quinns have supported Wilson’s political aspirations, and he’s been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. All told, Wilson spent about $500,000 in campaign funds with Richard Quinn & Associates during his campaigns. With the consultants’ help, Wilson won in 2010, becoming the nation’s youngest attorney general, and was re-elected in 2014. Adam Piper, who is listed as a former associate with RQ&A on his LinkedIn profile, became a high-level aide and eventually Wilson’s deputy chief of staff.
The Quinns’ names are in a redacted portion of SLED’s report that had been kept under wraps since its partial release in 2014. In the report, a lawmaker told SLED that Quinn used his position as majority leader to send political mailer business from the House Caucus to his personal company, making a profit on the arrangement, according to The State newspaper of Columbia, which reviewed a copy of the document Wednesday.
Merrill reportedly did the same thing when he was majority leader, The State said, citing the report.
News of the SLED report’s contents raise fresh questions about whether Quinn and Merrill violated state law that prohibits elected officeholders from using their public positions for financial gain.
Pascoe declined to comment on the matter.
Wilson’s office issued a statement Thursday on the contents of the SLED report being released to the media.
“The Attorney General firewalled himself in October 2014 from any involvement in the substance of the investigation concerning the redacted portions of the SLED report,” said spokeswoman Hayley Thrift. “It is deeply troubling that this investigative report has been inappropriately made public. It would be inappropriate for us to comment beyond this.”
Thrift said Wilson is not cutting his ties with RQ&A as a political advisor as a result of the investigation link.
“The fact that someone inappropriately leaked sealed information has not changed Attorney General Wilson’s relationship with Richard Quinn & Associates,” she said in a statement.
Rick Quinn, R-Cayce, told The Post and Courier he was happy the information had become public because it shows there was no wrongdoing. Declining to speculate how the SLED report was leaked, he did question the timing of the publication, just a few months away from the primaries.
“I’m at least happy that it’s out there so that people can see the truth,” Quinn said. “It’s obvious that nothing improper was done.”
Quinn also rebuffed a notion that Wilson was trying to protect him. “In all honesty, I think it’s pretty plain if you read the SLED report that nothing wrong was done,” Quinn said. “So why would he protect somebody in that situation? I think, obviously, why would he refer it to somebody if he thought I did something wrong and take it back? That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Merrill said he, too, was relieved the information was released because he felt like his hands were tied from being able to respond to “nebulous rumors and innuendoes.”
“All along we’ve known that the attorney general’s opinion and the House Ethics Committee opinion, and all of the advice we received beforehand, all said that our actions were perfectly legal,” Merrill said. “We’ve always been confident that we were in adherence with the law.”
He added that despite what has been implied, “no one is stealing money or embezzling money or shifting grants somewhere or public corruption.”
“Sometimes you shake the bottle and there’s nothing in the bottle left,” Merrill said.
Both Merrill and his attorney, Scott Schools, were critical of the report being released nonetheless. Schools said the leaking of the information “is inexcusable at best and illegal at worst, and unfair to all involved.”
“Despite representations that this investigation involves serious ‘public corruption,’ the report discloses no such conduct,” Schools said.
The Post and Courier was first to document Wilson’s longtime connections with Quinn, a consultant who shepherded campaigns for some of the state’s most powerful Republican candidates. The newspaper also was first to raise the handling of campaign finances by Rick Quinn and Merrill. Those details were reported in “Capitol Gains,” a series The Post and Courier produced with the Center for Public Integrity detailing how lawmakers used campaign accounts like personal ATM machines.
Rick Quinn has poured more than $105,000 of campaign funds into his own company and his father’s since 2009, the joint newspaper analysis found. Since 2008, fellow lawmakers steered more than $215,000 in campaign funds to Merrill, owner of a public relations company called Geechee Communications.
The corruption case took a high-profile turn in recent weeks after the feud between Wilson and Pascoe became public.
When Pascoe, a Dorchester County Democrat, filed paperwork with the state Supreme Court asserting that Wilson’s office had blocked his attempts to use the state grand jury, Wilson responded by torching the special prosecutor in a fiery news conference. Wilson called Pascoe a liar, “tainted” and said he wasn’t even his fifth choice to be special prosecutor.
The Post and Courier later obtained emails and texts showing that Piper, the former Quinn worker who now works for Wilson, apparently plotted with the Quinns and other high-powered Republican consultants to discredit Pascoe prior to the attorney general’s press conference.
Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster was among those mentioned in a text as having taken part in the discussion. McMaster told The Post and Courier he’d talked with Piper and other operatives at a fundraiser for Rick Quinn the night before Wilson’s news conference. But McMaster insisted he had nothing to do with any negative campaign against Pascoe.
McMaster also told The Post and Courier that the attorney general was not at the fundraiser. But The State reported that Wilson was listed as a “special guest” at the $100-a-ticket event for Quinn, held at the Nelson Mullins law firm in downtown Columbia.
The emails and texts reveal the intensity of anger among some of Wilson’s allies, their determination to make Pascoe pay, and the strains this created within the GOP.
In one email to state Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore, Piper wrote: “If there is a way for the party to reveal David Pascoe is Dick Harpootlian’s Mini-Me/Sock Puppet/Clone, it would be beneficial for years to come for the party.”
Harpootlian is a longtime Democratic party leader and a past party chairman.
Piper has said the email was sent from his private gmail account and the attorney general was unaware of the missive.
John Freeman, a USC School of Law professor and legal ethicist, said he remains baffled that Wilson held a press conference to call Pascoe “tainted” and a liar, as well as Piper’s efforts to brand Pascoe as a stooge for Democratic Party leaders.
Freeman noted that state court rules define “professional misconduct” as behavior that is “prejudicial to the administration of justice,” and that court rules also say lawyers are responsible for their non-lawyer assistants.
People who believe lawyers have engaged in misconduct must make complaints to the S.C. Judicial Department’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which does its own investigations. That office has a range of penalties at its disposal, from “letters of caution” to disbarment. Freeman said he expects that someone will file a grievance in connection with the Pascoe case, but that it likely would happen after the state Supreme Court weighs in.
The emails and texts were another twist in a high-stakes probe over money, influence and ethics at the Statehouse. The drama began with the investigation that brought down former House Speaker Bobby Harrell in 2014 for misusing campaign money. As part of that investigation, SLED reportedly uncovered information about other lawmakers. A portion of SLED’s 42-page report has been made public, but sections believed to describe the lawmakers were heavily redacted.
Last summer, Wilson appointed Pascoe as special prosecutor out “of an abundance of caution” because the SLED report involved “certain legislative members.”
Wilson’s vague comments sparked speculation about whether other lawmakers might end up snared, but months passed without any word from Pascoe about the investigation’s progress. That changed last month when Pascoe and SLED Chief Mark Keel made a formal request to Circuit Judge Clifton Newman to bring the case to the state grand jury. Newman approved the request.
But tensions between Pascoe and Wilson soon boiled over. Wilson’s chief deputy, John McIntosh, met with Newman about the case. Pascoe later said in a court filing that McIntosh also ordered the grand jury’s clerk not to swear in anyone, a claim Wilson would deny.
Cynthia Roldan and Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.