BEAUFORT — A special prosecutor questioned the impartiality of a judge in the Statehouse corruption case and asked her to step aside during a tense courtroom exchange Wednesday in which they blamed each other for a central figure in the investigation walking away with no jail time.
Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen refused to back down after the prosecutor, David Pascoe, sought her recusal from the proceeding.
Pascoe had accused the judge of improperly communicating with lawyers defending former House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, whom she sentenced to probation on a misconduct charge earlier this month.
"You're making something about absolutely nothing," the judge told Pascoe.
At one point, as attorneys on both sides jumped up to argue the issue, Mullen called for a brief recess, putting up her hands and walking out of the courtroom.
"Now I am going to get locked up,” Pascoe was heard commenting to someone nearby.
That didn't happen, and the hearing soon resumed without further incident.
Mullen ended the 90-minute proceeding without ruling on the central issue that brought them there: whether to reconsider Quinn's sentence of probation. A written order is expected later.
Pascoe lamented in the courtroom how the case had turned out so far. Though he had dropped other charges that Quinn faced in exchange for the plea, Pascoe said he expected a harsher punishment.
"I really thought that pleading the defendant guilty would (reveal) all these political atrocities since 2010," he said. "This was going to be a golden opportunity ... to send the most corrupt legislator up there to prison. ... But now he's given a presumption of innocence that doesn't exist."
Tensions have been building since Mullen muzzled Pascoe during Quinn's sentencing, refusing to hear arguments about why Quinn deserved jail time based on an array of misconduct wider than the former legislator acknowledged during his December guilty plea. Pascoe fired back with a Feb. 16 motion accusing the court of legal errors and alleging that Mullen had told him to "go light on the facts so the plea deal won't blow up."
Mullen has told Pascoe that considering any additional accusations in sentencing would violate Quinn's constitutional rights and that the prosecutor should have taken the case to trial if he wanted all of the charges considered against the former lawmaker. The sentencing hearing earlier this month had lasted less than 10 minutes.
But the judge heard him out Wednesday, often making lengthier arguments in response to Pascoe than to Quinn's own lawyers.
After the hearing, Quinn repeated a often-invoked criticism of Pascoe.
"It verifies what I've been telling you all for a year and a half: This man is using the state law to prosecute and investigate his political adversaries," Quinn said. "Scoring political points ... is more important to him than actually getting to the truth."
Pascoe is the elected Democrat 1st Circuit solicitor; Quinn is a former GOP state lawmaker.
Pascoe quickly jumped into the fray as the hearing got underway. He again accused the judge of legal missteps and added a new ripple by alleging that she had improper, ex-parte meetings with the defense attorney outside his presence.
Mullen fired back, telling Pascoe if he were going to make such an allegation “you better have something to back it up."
The judge and Quinn's lawyers contended Pascoe had agreed to let parties in the case talk without all being present, which is allowed in cases involving attorneys trying to hash out an agreement.
Mullen urged both sides to move beyond personal attacks.
"This isn't about you," she said.
Pascoe countered, saying the attorneys and the judge had engaged in such communications before he agreed to it. He took exception to the judge giving her own accounts and said the state's chief justice should appoint a new judge.
"You have now stepped off the curb from being a fair and impartial judge to being a witness in this case," Pascoe told her.
The prosecutor has argued Mullen went too light on Quinn. The 22-year Statehouse veteran, Pascoe said, abused his public office by leveraging his influence to benefit his family's stable of corporate and political clients. Quinn and his father, veteran Republican operative Richard Quinn, deny those allegations and have accused Pascoe of waging a political witch hunt.
Mullen continued Wednesday to rebuff the prosecutor's arguments that she should have looked beyond the narrow admission of guilt Rick Quinn made during his December plea and sent him to jail for a broader palate of misdeeds. Though Pascoe outlined a variety of allegations during the plea hearing, Mullen said she couldn’t consider his presentation as evidence.
"They denied each and every one of those allegations," aside from Quinn's narrow admission, she noted. "I think what you're trying to do is hold me to accepting all of that as fact.
"If that’s what you wanted, you should have tried the case."
The judge said the legal precedents Pascoe has cited in his arguments knocking the court's ruling were “not even close” to the details of the Quinn prosecution. Pascoe replied that the court errors in the case were much more “egregious.”
Pascoe also insisted that the judge's remarks backed up his arguments.
"You help me prove my point of judicial errors,” Pascoe said, adding that Quinn didn’t deserve the presumption of innocence because he had pleaded guilty to a crime.
Pascoe said the way Quinn's defense team handled the guilty plea was an “effort to manipulate and mislead this court” by narrowing the misconduct Quinn admitted to.
Quinn's lawyer, Matthew Richardson, said Pascoe's presentation to the court about broad misconduct by the former legislator was “not trustworthy or reliable.” He said the judge was right not to rely on it.
Quinn, a Lexington Republican, pleaded guilty to a single misconduct in office charge, acknowledging he omitted the University of South Carolina, which leased office space from a company tied to him, on his 2016 economic interest statement. In return, the prosecution dropped other charges against him that could have landed Quinn behind bars for a decade.
As part of the deal, Richard Quinn & Associates, the political and marketing consulting firm run by Quinn's father, agreed to pay $5,500 to settle an illegal lobbying charge. The elder Quinn, a longtime political kingmaker, was cleared of all wrongdoing but must testify before the state grand jury.
Pascoe said at Wednesday's hearing that he had hoped such testimony would show the roots of corruption at the Capitol and "start telling us where the bones are buried."
Afterward, the prosecutor packed up mounds of papers and walked out, refusing to comment to reporters in the courtroom.