A conservative nonprofit headed by embattled political consultant Richard Quinn avoided questions last week about how much money his private firm earns from donations the group receives.

Quinn incorporated the Conservative Leadership Project in 2012 and has been listed as its president and secretary in subsequent filings with the IRS. The most recent filing, from 2015, showed the group had raised nearly $283,000 to further its stated mission of promoting discussion on “the rule of law” and critical public policy issues.

In response to questions from The Post and Courier, the group issued a written statement last week indicating that it also uses his firm, Richard Quinn & Associates, for “administrative and operational support as well as strategic planning and consultation.”

That acknowledgement raises questions about whether Quinn or his Columbia-area firm, which has been the subject of increasing scrutiny by investigators involved in the Statehouse corruption probe, have directly or indirectly profited from his ties to the nonprofit. It also opens a window into the often murky world of political operatives, where money and allegiances often overlap in not-so-obvious ways.

As is his style, Quinn has played a background role in the Conservative Leadership Project while one of his clients, Attorney General Alan Wilson, has served as the group’s most visible public emissary. Wilson’s image appears prominently on the group’s website. Just as the attorney general was considered a favorite to become the next governor, Wilson moderated a series of forums in which he interviewed the 16 Republican presidential hopefuls ahead of South Carolina’s first-in-the-South GOP primary in 2016.

The forums also benefited Quinn, giving him opportunities to network with national Republican leaders eight years after working for U.S. Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. 

Quinn would not discuss his work with the group and referred questions to Randy Lowell, a Columbia attorney who is listed as vice president of the Conservative Leadership Project’s board of directors. Lowell provided a short written statement on behalf of the CLP but did not respond to questions about how much Quinn’s firm is paid for its work.

IRS filings indicate that neither Quinn nor his daughter, Rebecca Mustian, who is listed as treasurer of Conservative Leadership Project, are directly paid for their work with the nonprofit. But there is no way to tell from the filings how much the group might have spent on services provided by Quinn’s consulting firm.

Government watchdog John Crangle said he isn’t surprised by the opaque arrangement or the fact that Quinn’s firm has apparently ended up with a central role in the nonprofit.

“He's made a whole career of making money off of politics” said Crangle, government relations director for the South Carolina Progressive Network. “This is just another way he can make money off his political connections."

Ties to probe

Quinn’s ties to the group are said to have drawn the interest of investigators working on the ongoing Statehouse probe, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation. Quinn has already emerged as a key figure in the probe, which has so far netted indictments against three state lawmakers.

Quinn’s firm was named in an indictment against state Sen. John Courson, a Columbia Republican accused of laundering campaign donations through Richard Quinn & Associates for his personal use. Quinn and his son, Republican state Rep. Rick Quinn, also were mentioned in a 2013 State Law Enforcement Division report examining potential leads on misconduct at the Statehouse.

The Quinns have not been charged with any crime, and they have denied any wrongdoing.

Lowell said state investigators haven’t requested any documents from the Conservative Leadership Project.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who heads up the corruption probe, declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.

Wilson, the attorney general, appointed Pascoe to lead the corruption probe in 2013, citing an unspecified conflict of interest. But last year he tried to wrest control of the investigation back from Pascoe, accusing the solicitor of overstepping his authority by moving to activate the state grand jury to assist with the case.

Wilson called Pascoe “tainted” and publicly questioned his legal abilities, but the state Supreme Court sided with Pascoe and allowed him to continue his work.

Wilson has largely been silent on the investigation since that point, and emails to his office and campaign last week inquiring about his work with the CLP went unanswered. Earlier this month, however, Wilson said he planned to continue using Quinn’s services and looks forward to working with the Conservative Leadership Project again “on educating the public on conservative solutions to problems facing our state.”

Who runs CLP?

Though published reports have described Wilson as a founding member of the group, he has never been listed as an officer with the CLP. Quinn is the only person whose name has consistently appeared on required IRS filings since its formation.

Also serving on the group’s board of directors is former Attorney General Charlie Condon, a former Quinn client who stood by Wilson in his fiery press conference last year blasting Pascoe. He showed his support for Wilson alongside future Gov. Henry McMaster, another Quinn client and former state attorney general. Condon, like Quinn, declined to comment on the group.

Rounding out the board are two prominent attorneys from the well-connected Columbia law firm of Willoughby & Hoefer, where Quinn’s son-in-law, Ben Mustian, works as a lawyer.

Mitch Willoughby, a founding partner in the firm and an old friend of Quinn, was Wilson’s former boss before he became attorney general. He also was chairman of a Lexington bank that loaned Wilson $250,000 days before a filing deadline in the 2010 race for attorney general.

The loan drastically inflated Wilson’s campaign war chest, giving him the appearance of financial strength that helped him edge out two opponents in the GOP primary that year. Willoughby has not responded to Post and Courier inquiries about the loan and it remains unclear what, if any, help he provided to Wilson in securing it.

Willoughby went on to earn $7 million representing the state in a lawsuit accusing a New York bank of mismanaging South Carolina’s pension investments. Work on that lawsuit began during McMaster's term as attorney general, and Wilson, a Lexington Republican, has said he had little involvement in the case after he took office.

Since Wilson took over in 2011, Willoughby’s firm has earned nearly $1.2 million representing the attorney’s general’s office in three other matters — making the firm the second-highest earner among outside counsels hired for hourly-fee cases, according to figures provided by Wilson's office.

Most of that work was handled by Lowell, the other Willoughby firm member on the CLP board, records show. The lion’s share of that money came from a case involving the Savannah River Maritime Commission, whose chairman specifically requested Lowell’s services because of his expertise in environmental law, according to a spokeswoman for the attorney general.

Lowell, a Summerville native, also has been a point person for his firm with the State Ports Authority, another longtime Quinn client. Willoughby and Hoefer performed some $1.6 million in legal work for the SPA between 2012 and 2015, records show.

Promoting its agenda

On its IRS filings, the Conservative Leadership Forum stated that its mission was “to promote civic education and enhancement of South Carolina citizens’ knowledge of public policy issues that impact their lives and advocate for improved and increased civic discourse.”

Lowell said the CLP does not engage in lobbying, electioneering, or advocating for specific candidates. The group instead spends its money on events which it “believes to be critical to an educated and informed electorate," he said.

The CLP decided hosting forums with the GOP presidential candidates would be a prime opportunity for achieving these goals, Lowell said. With an emphasis on “respect for the rule of law,” the group felt Wilson would be the “right person” to moderate the events, which collectively drew more than 15,000 attendees. Lowell described the events as “a huge success” and noted that Wilson received no compensation for his efforts.

The forums provided a high-profile starring role for Wilson, who at the time was widely rumored to be mulling a run for governor in 2018. The events were seen by some political observers as a way to boost the Wilson brand by allowing him to share a stage with presidential contenders and discuss his own stances on issues such as choosing Supreme Court justices, strengthening gun rights and curbing undocumented immigrants.

“It looked like it was purposely put together in order to give Alan that forum with the Republican candidates,” said Neil Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University political scientist. “It let him troop around the state and get a good bit of coverage in order to beef up his popularity so he could run in the gubernatorial election.”

The events were seen as a huge win for Wilson, but his prospects in the governor’s race dimmed after he lost his political feud with Pascoe. Then McMaster, serving as lieutenant governor, was elevated to the state’s top elected office following Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The Conservative Leadership Project has been largely quiet since last fall, when it co-hosted a Constitution Day event at the South Carolina State Museum with the Palmetto Promise Institute. Among others, the event featured Wilson and his stepfather, Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, who also is a Quinn client.

The CLP’s former executive director, Brielle Appelbaum, now works as Joe Wilson's campaign manager. She could not be reached for comment last week, but Lowell said she left the group, in part, because it had scaled back its activities. 

As for the future, Lowell said the Conservative Leadership Project has been operating “at a reduced level until the right opportunities for continued public engagement present themselves in the future.”

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Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556 or follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Watchdog/Public Service Editor

Glenn Smith is editor of the Watchdog and Public Service team and helped write the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, “Till Death Do Us Part.” He is a Connecticut native and a longtime crime reporter.

Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain is Columbia Bureau Chief for The Post and Courier. He was editor of Free Times and was a reporter and editor at The State, The Charlotte Observer and The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News.

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