COLUMBIA — State Sen. John Courson pocketed nearly $133,000 from his campaign war chest by funneling money through a powerful political consultant who then wrote checks back to the lawmaker for his personal use, a special prosecutor outlined Wednesday.
Courson, 72, was indicted March 16 on charges of converting campaign funds for personal use and two counts of misconduct in office. He has maintained his innocence but was suspended from the Senate March 17, as is required by state law, pending the outcome of the case.
The Columbia Republican signed off on 13 payments over six years that sent almost $250,000 in his campaign funds to Richard Quinn and Associates, noting that the checks were to cover such things as consulting fees and mailings, 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said Wednesday at a bail hearing for the senator.
The Quinn firm turned around - often the very same day - and cut checks back to Courson, reimbursing him for about 54 percent of the payments he made to the consultant, Pascoe said.
Courson then endorsed and cashed those checks, jotting the number of his personal bank account on the back of the check, the prosecutor said.
All but one of the 13 reimbursements to Courson was for slightly less than $10,000, Pascoe told the court. He did not mention that banks are required under federal statutes to report all deposits of $10,000 or more to authorities to safeguard against money laundering.
Quinn's firm has emerged as a central player in Pascoe's ongoing Statehouse corruption probe, which has led to the guilty plea of one top lawmaker and indictments against two others. The State newspaper of Columbia has reported, citing unidentified sources, that State Law Enforcement Division agents seized documents from Richard Quinn & Associates.
Other Quinn clients have been subpoenaed in connection with the probe, including the State Ports Authority, which suspended ties with the consultant Wednesday.
Quinn, who denies any wrongdoing, has not been charged in the probe.
Courson's lawyer, former assistant U.S. Attorney Rose Mary Parham, has insisted the senator has done nothing wrong, and she has called his indictment a "partisan witch hunt."
"Unfortunately, Senator Courson is the latest victim in partisan politics at its worst," she said.
Parham is a former client of Quinn's son, Rick, a Republican representative from Lexington who owns Mail Marketing Strategies. State campaign filings show she paid $5,636 to the younger Quinn's firm during her unsuccessful 2010 run for 12th Circuit solicitor. She was endorsed in that race by then-Attorney General Henry McMaster, a fellow Quinn client now South Carolina's governor.
The 13 payments in the Courson case represent just a portion of money that changed hands between the senator and the elder Quinn's company, Pascoe told the court. In all, Courson's campaign sent $549,850 to Richard Quinn & Associates between 2006 and 2012, and the firm reimbursed him for $159,035 of that amount, he said.
One payment particularly attracted investigators' attention: The memo portion on a Nov. 28, 2012, check from Courson For Senate to RQA for about $35,116 read "victory bonus, consulting fee, mailers."
Pascoe said it was the "victory bonus" wording that sent a red flag to investigators.
"The very next day, Nov. the 29th, 2012, Richard Quinn and Associates wrote a check to John Courson personally for $32,000," Pascoe said. "That check, according to investigators, almost $9,000 of it was cashed, and approximately $23,000 was deposited into his personal account."
Circuit Judge R. Knox McMahon allowed Courson to remain free while he faces ethics charges, setting a personal recognizance bond of $16,000.
McMahon cited Courson's strong ties to the community, including his more than 20 years serving in the General Assembly, as reasons the senator is not a flight risk or danger to the public. Courson also is undergoing treatment for skin cancer.
Courson does not have to put up the cash immediately but would forfeit the amount if he fails to show for future court appearances.
Parham said the payments were legitimate campaign transactions and that she is looking forward to proving it in court.
"It's time for the people to hear the whole story and get to the truth of this matter, so Senator Courson can move on with his life," she said.
Parham filed motions with the court requesting a speedy trial and asking that a date be set within 60 days. She further requested Pascoe turn over all evidence related to the case within 10 days. McMahon said he would take the motion under advisement when setting the next court date.
Parham said after the hearing she thinks Pascoe rushed to judgment, pointing out that Pascoe did not have transcripts ready to share.
"It was shocking to me that he chose to indict this case," Parham said. "Why indict a case if you don't have the (State Grand Jury) transcripts ready and you don't have the evidence ready for the other side?"
Pascoe declined to comment after the hearing.
Courson’s indictment is the third in the probe led by Pascoe, a Democratic solicitor serving Dorchester, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties.
The probe has been going on for several years. In 2014, former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, pleaded guilty to improperly using campaign money to reimburse himself for personal expenses, including trips he took in his private plane. As part of his plea agreement, Harrell agreed to cooperate in any investigation of the Statehouse.
In December, Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, was indicted on 30 charges of ethics and misconduct violations. The indictments, according to Pascoe's case, allege a pattern of Merrill accepting or soliciting more then $1 million from groups with Statehouse legislation at stake during his 15-year career in Columbia.
Andy Shain and Glenn Smith contributed to this report.