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Emails indicate ex-Rep. Rick Quinn paid by trial lawyers while working to blunt tort reform bill

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State Rep. Rick Quinn (left) speaks to attorneys and and his father Richard Quinn in court in Columbia ahead of a December hearing in connection with the Statehouse corruption probe in Columbia. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

As former state Rep. Rick Quinn awaits sentencing on a misconduct charge, newly released emails raise fresh questions about the extent to which he used his public office to do the bidding of his father’s high-powered clients.

The emails show officials from the South Carolina Association for Justice — the state trial lawyers group — quietly enlisted the help of Quinn and his political consultant father in blunting a tort reform bill aimed at capping damages in lawsuits. Special prosecutor David Pascoe included the emails in recent court filings to counter Rick Quinn’s claims that he steered clear of legislation involving his father’s business interests.

The emails, uncovered by prosecutors after Quinn's December plea hearing, indicate Quinn and his father were paid $100,000 to work on behalf of the lawyers' group while the Lexington Republican was casting votes on the bill.

Quinn's legal team would not discuss the emails, but they have strongly denied Pascoe's assertions the lawmaker worked hand-in-glove with his father to boost the fortunes of corporate clients — an issue Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen has been asked to consider when she hands down a sentence in the case Monday morning in Beaufort. 

Beyond those immediate implications, the correspondence offers a rare glimpse into how deals are cut and laws are made in the murky backroom politics of South Carolina government, a domain in which Quinn's father, GOP operative Richard Quinn, excelled for decades as he extended his firm’s tentacles throughout the state's halls of power.

The year in question was 2011 and leaders of the South Carolina Association for Justice were uneasy. With the governor’s backing, the House had just passed a “pro-business” bill calling for a $350,000 cap on punitive damage awards in lawsuits. If the Senate followed suit, that could seriously curtail awards for trial lawyers and their clients.

Fears mounted when the lawyers' group learned the Senate’s powerful president, Glenn McConnell of Charleston — a lawyer himself — had unexpectedly lined up against them on the bill after the group sunk significant cash into currying Republican favor in the Legislature, emails show.

“If word gets out that McConnell turned on us in this bill, it will have a pretty chilling effect on us giving the amount of money that we have consciously been doing the last 3 years …,” Mark Joye, the association’s president, wrote in an April 2, 2011, email to two of his predecessors, Midlands attorneys Pete Strom and Kirk Morgan.

Joye, a Charleston attorney, noted the association’s political action committee could soon be putting $1 million in play and he worried that word of McConnell’s change of heart could lead to them “catching all sorts of hell from our members who have so far gone along with us on this paying republican (sic) favor only to have it backfire at the critical moment.”

“None of us can tell that to McConnell but wondering if that is something Richard can,” Joye added.

The elder Quinn and McConnell had been longtime political allies, and McConnell had paid Richard Quinn & Associates tens of thousands of dollars over the years for campaign-related work, state records show.

Rick Quinn has always maintained that he had no ties to his father’s firm and that he took steps to distance himself from actions that could benefit his father’s clients. But Joye’s email to his predecessors suggested otherwise.

“We (you) hired Richard and Rick for which they get paid about $100,000 a year,” Joye wrote to Strom and Morgan. “I know I just sent an email questioning Rick but Richard is someone who must now get involved and help out in any way he can.”

Strom soon forwarded Joye’s email to the two Quinns.

“See below. Please, very confidential. Mark is in a panic.”

Strom also sent along a message from Morgan, who fretted that the group’s “entire ‘bipartisan’ outreach strategy will be jeopardized if McConnell rams something down our throat we cannot agree to.”

Rick Quinn replied the following day with a short list of “issues on the bill that McConnell seemed to give on.”

Blunted reform

It’s unclear from the available records what happened next, and those involved declined to comment when contacted by The Post and Courier, including McConnell, who is now president of the College of Charleston. McConnell announced in January his plans to retire this summer. But by the time the legislation passed through the Senate, the caps for awards had been raised to $500,000 in typical cases and to $2 million or more in the most egregious cases — a solution that was viewed as a snub to then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

It wasn’t everything the association wanted. They still considered it unfair, but saw the change as “the best bill they could get” under the circumstances, said Michael Gunn, a lobbyist for the association at the time.

In court papers, Pascoe argued the episode showed Quinn clearly violating state law by working on behalf of an organization that employs lobbyists and failing to report that income. He stated that Quinn not only did the attorney group’s bidding behind the scenes but improperly voted on the legislation, as well — further evidence of a “clear association” with his father’s firm.

Quinn’s legal team declined to discuss Pascoe’s argument or the tort reform episode. During Quinn's December plea hearing, however, one of his lawyers, Johnny Gasser, maintained Quinn kept a wide berth from his father's clients, recusing himself on 15 occasions to avoid any overlap.

"He did not vote on legislation when it involved his ... father's clients," he said.

Gasser offered an example during the hearing, saying Rick Quinn immediately backed off assisting for-profit InfiLaw with its controversial bid to buy the Charleston School of Law a few years back when he learned the company was a client of his father, saying "I can't do this."

Former InfiLaw attorney Kevin Hall, however, wrote to Pascoe after the hearing to dispute that account. He said during the time he worked with the Quinns on the matter, Rick Quinn "never told me that he could not perform a task or do something saying he thought it would be improper, unethical, or a conflict of interest for him to do so."

Who did they hire?

It remains unclear exactly what steps Rick Quinn might have taken to intervene with McConnell on the tort reform bill opposed by the lawyers' group. 

Strom and Morgan did not respond to inquiries from the newspaper, and Joye said he didn't "have any specific recollection of these events from 6 and half years ago." He referred questions to Gunn, now the association's chief directing officer. 

Gunn said the group hired Richard Quinn & Associates to help with marketing, promotions and publications as part of a "rebranding effort" after the group changed its name and broadened its focus from a Democratic-leaning group to a more bipartisan entity. The group had formerly been known as the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association.

"We had a contract with Richard," Gunn said. "If Rick was a member of that group, we didn't know."

Gunn said he wasn't familiar with Joye's emails and could not speak to actions that individual members of the association might have taken back then. He insisted the group did not employ Quinn or his son to conduct a shadow lobbying effort on their behalf.

"The association certainly wouldn't have asked him to do that."

The Quinns have been at the center of Pascoe's long-running investigation which so far has led to guilty pleas for three lawmakers, including Quinn, and indictments of three other current and former legislators. Pascoe has accused the Quinns of raking in millions from business clients to illegally influence legislation. The elder Quinn also stands accused of paying legislators to do his bidding. The Quinns have denied the allegations.

Rick Quinn pleaded guilty in December to a misconduct count in an arrangement that called for Pascoe to drop other charges that could have landed the ex-lawmaker behind bars for more than a decade. In the plea, Rick Quinn admitted only to failing to include the University of South Carolina, which leased office space from a company tied to Quinn, on his 2016 economic interest statement. Pascoe has asked the judge to sentence Quinn to the maximum sentence of a year in jail. Quinn's attorneys are seeking probation.

Under the plea deal, prosecutors also agreed to drop illegal lobbying and felony conspiracy charges against Richard Quinn. His consulting firm instead pleaded guilty to misdemeanor failure to register as a lobbyist, punishable by a maximum $2,500 fine. He also agreed to pay an additional $3,000 in restitution and testify before the State Grand Jury.

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