COLUMBIA — South Carolina Rep. Rick Quinn could be sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty Wednesday to misconduct in office in the criminal case against him and his father, longtime GOP powerbroker Richard Quinn.
The Lexington lawmaker agreed to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count, knowing prosecutors were still seeking prison time. Quinn, 52, resigned his seat ahead of the hearing at the Richland County courthouse, ending 22 years in the House. That makes him the second legislator to resign this year in the Statehouse corruption probe that has largely focused on the Quinns.
Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen accepted the plea deal but delayed sentencing. Rick Quinn also faces a $1,000 fine.
The plea deal dropped illegal lobbying and felony conspiracy charges against his 73-year-old father. Richard Quinn's firm is pleading guilty to misdemeanor failure to register as a lobbyist, punishable by a maximum $2,500 fine. He agreed to pay an additional $3,000 in restitution.
Rick Quinn was facing a more severe misconduct in office charge and a conspiracy count, which could have sent him to prison for more than a decade. But he admitted only to failing to include the University of South Carolina on his 2016 economic interest statement. The school leased office space in 2015 from a company tenuously linked to Quinn, said his attorney, Matthew Richardson.
With Rick Quinn's sentence still unknown, the father and son declined to talk to reporters after the hearing.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, the special prosecutor assigned to the Statehouse probe, said he had planned to prove at trial that Rick Quinn failed to disclose more than $4 million paid to the Quinn firms since 2010 from clients with lobbyists. Rick Quinn ran a mail marketing firm but Pascoe argued that this was a thinly veiled effort to conceal the lawmaker's substantial involvement in his father's influential consulting operation. Clients of his father’s firm have included presidential candidates, top state legislators, large state agencies and major corporations. The Quinns have long maintained they kept their businesses separate.
"I can tell you without a doubt that public statement has been an absolute fabrication — an absolute lie to the public," Pascoe said.
Pascoe said Rick Quinn lied repeatedly to cover up that he was breaking state laws on campaign disclosure and lobbying.
"He did lobby legislators on behalf of his clients and sponsor legislation on behalf of his clients," he said.
Asking Mullen to sentence Quinn to "every day of that year," Pascoe said that after a four-year investigation, "people needed to see what's been going on in Columbia, and there’s been no one more corrupt than Rick Quinn and no entity more corrupt than Richard Quinn and Associates. There is not a legislator who could consciously duplicate this level of corruption."
Mullen questioned why Pascoe was not taking the case to trial if that's so.
"If your evidence is as damning, in your words, and as extensive as you said, why are you allowing them to plead guilty?" she asked.
Pascoe's answer made clear the Statehouse probe is far from over. Many had speculated it would end with the Quinns. But Pascoe said he's bringing Richard Quinn before the state grand jury to testify next month.
Quinn's attorney, Johnny Gasser, countered that all of Pascoe's allegations would have been "easily explained" by witnesses and experts at trial. He said Quinn didn't need to disclose the money because he was not an owner or employee of his father's firm. He said Quinn recused himself from votes benefiting his father's clients 15 times.
"These issues are very subjective," Gasser told the judge in asking for probation. Quinn "went out of his way to get legal advice before he did it and after he did it."
For months, Rick Quinn has adamantly denied doing anything illegal, calling the case a political witchhunt by a Democratic prosecutor against GOP lawmakers. He has accused Pascoe of going after his family for political retribution after twice pursuing a bid for attorney general. After trying unsuccessfully for months to get Pascoe kicked off the case, his attorney pushed for a trial date, saying the lawmaker was eager to clear his name before the filing period to run for election opens in mid-March.
That changed in recent days. Before court started Wednesday, he said he decided to end the ordeal for his family's sake. While his trial was set to get underway in late February, a court date for his father may have been more than a year away. The father of two teared up as he told the judge he's pleading guilty partly out of concern for his father and his wife.
Earlier Wednesday, Quinn resigned from the House.
“My service in the state Legislature has been one of the greatest honors of my life,” Rick Quinn wrote in a letter turned in to House Speaker Jay Lucas that did not mention the case or plea.
Quinn was first elected to the House in 1988. He lost re-election in the 2004 GOP primary while serving as House majority leader, but Lexington voters sent him back to the House six years later.
The plea deal does end Pascoe's case against the Quinns, though his probe into the political consulting dynasty entangled at least four other former and current legislators and disintegrated the business built over four decades. Formerly long-time clients who have dropped the Quinns include Gov. Henry McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Beyond running Wilson's successful campaigns, Richard Quinn did public relations work for the state's chief prosecutor. Pascoe said even after he told Wilson that Rick Quinn needed to be investigated, Wilson continued to have Richard Quinn write press releases for him and even asked his firm to draft a letter to state law enforcement about the case. Wilson has said he had Quinn check one letter for spelling and grammar.
Pascoe has accused Richard Quinn of paying legislators at least $1.3 million to do his bidding for business clients that paid millions for his far-reaching influence into all levels of state government.
Pascoe’s investigation has zeroed in on the Quinns since the 2014 prosecution of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign spending violations involving his private airplane and resigned.
The Quinns’ plea deal comes nine months after State Law Enforcement Division agents raided Richard Quinn’s Columbia offices and hauled off crates of documents. Some of the state’s biggest firms and agencies, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, AT&T and the State Ports Authority, have also been subpoenaed to turn over documents.
Pascoe also accused Rick Quinn of steering more than $250,000 to family companies from the House Republican Caucus when he was majority leader from 1999 to 2004. Gasser pointed to advisory opinions from both the House Ethics Committee and the attorney general's office that what Quinn did was legal.
Also indicted on criminal conspiracy charges are suspended Sen. John Courson and former Reps. Tracy Edge and Jim Harrison, both of whom worked for Richard Quinn while in the Legislature. All three face misconduct in office charges as well. The allegations against Edge, R-Myrtle Beach; and Harrison, R-Columbia, stem from their work for Quinn, while Courson, R-Columbia, is accused of funneling nearly $160,000 in campaign cash for personal use through Richard Quinn's firm. Pascoe has said that money constituted "kickbacks." All three deny the allegations.
Former Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, pleaded guilty in September to misdemeanor misconduct in office. Indicted last December, the former House majority leader was the first person since Harrell charged in the probe. Merrill, who owned his own public relations and political consulting firm, received one year of probation after admitting he didn't report income from clients and should've recused himself from a vote.
Pascoe said Merrill provided information crucial to the case against the Quinns.
Andy Shain contributed to this report.