Gov. Henry McMaster is standing by his longtime political strategist, Richard Quinn, despite the powerful Republican consultant being implicated in newly released indictments and facing questions for allegedly manipulating a state political party election as part of an ongoing Statehouse corruption probe.
“We’ve worked together for a lot of years on political things, and I intend to continue working with them,” McMaster told The Post and Courier on Friday following an address to The Citadel Corps of Cadets in Charleston.
When asked if he was concerned about Quinn's firm, Richard Quinn & Associates, being named in the indictment of Sen. John Courson, he said, “I plan to continue working with them” before immediately leaving for another engagement.
The indictment implicating Quinn was not a surprise Friday since his name has been linked to the Statehouse investigation for some time.
But the lawmaker indicted was a shocker.
Courson, a Columbia Republican and a 33-year General Assembly veteran known for talking about baseball and history, has maintained one of the more sterling reputations in the Statehouse. He is accused of funneling almost $250,000 from his campaign war chest through Quinn’s political consulting firm and receiving almost $133,000 of that back for personal use over six years, court documents said.
“John is widely respected across party lines,” Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said. “There has never been any suggestion whatsoever of impropriety of any sort with him.”
Courson, chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, is charged with three counts: two for misconduct in office and one for converting campaign cash for personal expenses.
A bond hearing has not been set. He was suspended from office Friday by Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, pending the outcome of his case.
Courson's lawyer, former assistant U.S. Attorney Rose Mary Parham of Florence, blasted the charges as a "partisan witch hunt" by a "politically motivated prosecutor." She said Courson is ready for a jury to hear the case immediately "to put an end to these ridiculous charges once and for all."
Quinn said of his longtime client’s indictment: “All I can say is that the allegations are false.”
Neither Quinn nor McMaster have been charged in the probe, though Courson joins two other lawmakers nabbed in the investigation — one convicted already, former House Speaker Bobby Harrell; and one facing 30 charges, suspended state Rep. Jim Merrill of Charleston.
Courson’s indictment came a little more than a week after he was first contacted by State Law Enforcement Division investigators wanting to chat with him about Quinn. Quinn, along with his son, state Rep. Rick Quinn, were named in a state investigative report that led to the 2014 guilty plea and resignation of Harrell, R-Charleston, over campaign spending irregularities.
After that SLED contact, Courson, 72, retained Parham, who was informed over the weekend that the senator was now the subject of an investigation, according to sources with knowledge of the case.
Courson, a senior vice president at insurer Keenan & Suggs, was said to be caught off guard at how quickly his indictment arrived over the payments from 2006-2012.
It’s an unexpected turn for a senator who received a career award from government watchdog Common Cause for his work on ethics reform legislation in 2013 and for one who briefly held the Senate's most powerful leadership post, a post some consider the most powerful office in the state.
“I couldn’t be more shocked,” said John Crangle, who until recently was head of South Carolina’s chapter of Common Cause. “I just can’t believe John Courson would do something like that.”
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said he wants the evidence in Courson’s case publicly disclosed.
“Sen. Courson is one of the most popular and well-respected members of the Senate, and he has provided valuable leadership on many difficult issues,” the Edgefield Republican said. “But make no mistake: These are serious allegations. Our representative government requires the support and confidence of the public, but allegations of misconduct in office at all levels have understandably shaken the public’s confidence in elected leaders.”
State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, one of the largest spenders with Richard Quinn & Associates in recent years, said in his dealings with Quinn’s firm that “my checks go one way — from me to them.”
“In business, I wouldn’t take a refund back,” Loftis added. “I think what has passed for OK in Columbia should be re-evaluated.”
McMaster's office also said Friday he had not been part of any sort of payments as is what's alleged in the Courson indictments.
Courson’s indictment is the latest in an ongoing Statehouse corruption probe by special prosecutor 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe. Pascoe, a Democrat from Summerville, had no comment on the indictments, citing the ongoing investigation.
Courson is the third Republican caught in the probe that Republican state Attorney General Alan Wilson turned over to Pascoe, citing unspecified conflicts. Wilson, and his father, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of Springdale, also have been longtime clients of Quinn’s consulting firm.
Since 2009, Courson’s campaign spent more than $500,000 on his state Senate races, according to a database compiled by The Post and Courier and the Center for Public Integrity in Washington. Of that sum, about $445,000 went to Richard Quinn & Associates for mailers, postage and “TV production, airtime, consulting,” according to an analysis of his campaign disclosure forms.
Richard and Rick Quinn, a Republican lawmaker from Lexington, have been key players in South Carolina politics for decades, often playing kingmaker for some of the state’s most prominent elected officials.
On the national level, the elder Quinn worked for such candidates as Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond, Lindsey Graham and John McCain. On the state level, his clients have included now-Gov. McMaster, and former state Sen. Glenn McConnell, now the president of the College of Charleston. His firm also has multiple consulting contracts with state agencies, including the State Ports Authority and University of South Carolina.
The Quinns have maintained they have done nothing wrong in their Statehouse dealings.
The Post and Courier was first to report this week that Statehouse probe investigators obtained a copy of an audit that alleges the Quinns helped orchestrate Henry McMaster’s 2000 re-election as S.C. GOP party chairman by funneling money from their political firms into the party’s empty bank account. McMaster’s contested victory as party chairman led to a political rise that has taken the Columbia lawyer from state attorney general to lieutenant governor to the governor’s office.
Richard Quinn declined comment about the audit Friday.
The Statehouse corruption probe has been going on for several years. Harrell pleaded guilty in 2014 to using campaign money to reimburse himself for personal expenses, including trips he took in his private plane. As part of his plea agreement, the Charleston Republican agreed to cooperate in any investigation of the Statehouse.
In December, Merrill, R-Charleston, was indicted on 30 charges of ethics and misconduct violations that Pascoe alleges show a pattern in which Merrill accepted or solicited more then $1 million from groups with Statehouse legislation at stake during his 15-year career in Columbia.
Tony Bartelme, Maya T. Prabhu and Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.