BEAUFORT — Ignoring a prosecutor's pleas for jail time, a judge sentenced former House Majority Leader Rick Quinn to two years of probation Monday on a misconduct charge, making him the latest Statehouse corruption probe figure to escape incarceration for misdeeds in office.
Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen handed down the penalty during a surprisingly brief hearing. She did so over the objections of special prosecutor David Pascoe, who had questioned the validity of Quinn's December guilty plea and pushed for the Lexington Republican to serve a year behind bars.
Mullen, however, shut Pascoe down.
"The plea is valid," she told him and refused to discuss the matter further, telling Pascoe to file an appeal if he had issues with her decision.
"Mr. Quinn has no criminal record," Mullen said in explaining the sentence. "His political career is over. He’s been disgraced and his family’s name has been destroyed."
The hearing lasted less than 10 minutes.
Time will tell how damaging the decision will be to the veteran lawmaker and his father, Richard Quinn, a longtime political operative who has spent decades leveraging connections and contacts for the benefit of high-dollar clients. The family brand might be tainted by allegations of influence-peddling that accompanied their indictments but no felony conviction or plea agreement prevents Rick Quinn from running for office again.
And though his father may soon testify before the State Grand Jury, nothing prevents the elder Quinn from selling the same services that long made him South Carolina's preeminent kingmaker in GOP circles.
Some political observers saw the resolution as a predictable end to the case against the Quinns given that no one indicted in the long-running probe has yet gone to jail.
Others questioned whether Pascoe may have misplayed his hand by not taking the Quinns to trial instead of opting for a plea deal that didn't require admissions of guilt to the most serious allegations he uncovered.
Longtime government watchdog John Crangle, a lawyer who works for the South Carolina Progressive Network, said more indictments and charges may be coming if Richard Quinn's testimony before the grand jury yields new targets of inquiry.
He added that if Pascoe “isn’t able to produce any more criminal defendants, then it looks to me like he cut a bad deal."
Pascoe would not discuss his strategy, but it was clear after the hearing he was frustrated with Mullen's approach to the case.
"As much as I disagree with the sentence, that is within the judge's discretion," he said. "The real problem with this plea is how it was conducted by the court and what the judge said she considered in passing sentence."
'The rest ... is a lie'
In particular, Mullen indicated she had limited her consideration to a narrow admission of guilt Quinn addressed during his December hearing, ignoring a wider presentation of facts and incidents Pascoe laid out to show the extent of Quinn's alleged misdeeds during his time in office.
Pascoe accused the Quinns of making millions by illegally influencing legislation to benefit corporate and political clients. He accused the elder Quinn of paying legislators to do his bidding.
Rick Quinn only acknowledged that he failed to include the University of South Carolina, which leased office space from a company tied to Quinn, on his 2016 economic interest statement — an inaction he suggested was a mistake.
Pascoe maintained the judge should consider Quinn's wider range of conduct, arguing it showed a pervasive pattern of improper meddling on behalf of his father's clients. Among the evidence he presented to the court were emails indicating Rick Quinn and his father had been paid $100,000 by the state trial lawyers' association to help blunt a tort reform bill — legislation Quinn later voted on.
Quinn's legal team argued it was patently unfair to judge Quinn on allegations that had not been proven in a court of law. Pascoe countered this regularly happens with guilty pleas in state and federal court. Once a defendant owns up to a charge, the prosecutor lays out the facts of the case and the judge is free to consider conduct relevant to the offense at hand, he contended.
In court filings, Pascoe pointed to a Greenville County assault case in which a judge brought in police officers to testify about a defendant's conduct because he wanted to hear more information than the prosecution provided during the guilty plea. The defendant objected, but an appeals court upheld his sentence in 2003, finding the judge acted within the bounds of the law.
Mullen didn't buy the argument, however, insisting that state and federal constitutions bar Quinn from being penalized for the "serious political atrocities" Pascoe alleged in his presentation but did not prove in court.
“If the solicitor wanted Mr. Quinn to be punished … for those actions, he should have tried (Quinn) on all counts indicted” or negotiated a different plea deal, she said.
"Quinn may be guilty of those charges but it’s not what he pled guilty to,” she said.
Pascoe tried to object but the judge told him to sit down, a move that stunned the prosecutor.
"In my 25 years of doing this, I have never seen a judge not allow a prosecutor or a defense attorney to state their objections in the record," he said after the proceeding.
After sentencing, Rick Quinn repeated his oft-stated contention the corruption probe was part of a political agenda by Pascoe, a Democratic solicitor from Orangeburg. Quinn, his father and supporters hugged and smiled after the sentencing.
Quinn, 52, said he believed he could have shown at trial that he handled himself honorably and never used his office for personal gain. But that would have been taxing on his family, he said, so he pleaded to the lone charge. He also resigned his seat ahead of the plea, ending 22 years in the House.
"I take accountability for that one act," he said after the sentencing. "But the rest of what (Pascoe) says is a lie."
He called the corruption probe a "political assassination."
"There have been a lot of people treated unfairly by this process. I’m not the only one," Quinn said. "Some honest men have had their reputations besmirched, and I’m going to do all I can legally do to help them defend themselves. ... Some good men got hurt by this."
Elder Quinn feels 'vindicated'
In addition to probation, Quinn was ordered to perform 500 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine. The judge suspended a one-year prison term in lieu of the probation.
The sentencing had been delayed amid back-and-forth wrangling behind the scenes by Quinn's attorneys and Pascoe over the particulars of Quinn's plea and whether he actually admitted to committing a crime. Rick Quinn pleaded guilty two months ago to a single count of misdemeanor misconduct in office but it was unclear whether the single act he acknowledged constituted habitual negligence or willful misconduct. Quinn acknowledged in court Monday his action was intentional, and the judge deemed the plea sufficient.
Under the agreement, a conspiracy count and a more severe misconduct in office charge were dropped against Rick Quinn. Those could have sent him to prison for more than a decade.
Under the package deal, Quinn's father agreed to testify before the State Grand Jury after being given immunity. Illegal lobbying and felony conspiracy charges were dropped against the elder Quinn, whose consulting firm pleaded guilty to misdemeanor failure to register as a lobbyist. The judge ordered a maximum $2,500 fine, and the firm agreed to pay an additional $3,000 in restitution.
Richard Quinn's lawyer, Debbie Barbier, said after the hearing her client being cleared of all charges "speaks volumes about the validity of the investigation." She equated the probe to a nightmare that is finally over.
"Richard Quinn has been totally vindicated," Barbier said, "and his son Rick has made a sacrifice to protect his family."
Still awaiting trial on misconduct charges in the probe are Sen. John Courson, a Columbia Republican and Quinn ally, and former Reps. Tracy Edge and Jim Harrison, both of whom worked for Richard Quinn while in the Legislature.
Rick Quinn is the third former lawmaker whose prosecution in the case has ended in probation. The others were former Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, who pleaded guilty in September to misdemeanor misconduct in office, and former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, also a Charleston Republican, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to misdemeanor campaign spending violations.