COLUMBIA — Facing up to 16 years in prison on allegations that he pocketed $160,000 in campaign cash, state Sen. John Courson pleaded guilty Monday and resigned from office.
The Columbia Republican will face no time behind bars for now after pleading guilty to misconduct in office. Sentencing was postponed until he cooperates with prosecutors, which could include testifying before the state grand jury.
He could face up to 10 years in prison if he fails to cooperate with the state, Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen said. He has not been asked to pay back any of the campaign money.
"I am very disappointed that I’ve let down my constituents," Courson said after the brief hearing.
Courson becomes the fourth lawmaker — all Republicans — to plead guilty and resign in the Statehouse corruption probe.
He joins former House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston and former House Majority leaders Jim Merrill of Charleston and Rick Quinn of Lexington. None of the other former lawmakers received prison time, just fines and probation.
Courson's plea came as his trial was set to start Monday in Columbia. It would have been the first corruption case heard by a jury since the probe began in 2013.
Courson told The Post and Courier last week he rejected a plea deal offered late last year that would have him resign from office. Courson, 73, has staunchly maintained his innocence since his indictment in March 2017 and vowed to take his case to a jury.
The senator changed his mind over the weekend after realizing he had violated the law in how he was getting money that belonged to him.
Courson said after the hearing he sent campaign contributions to his political consultant, Richard Quinn & Associates, which would give him a portion back to cover years of unpaid personal campaign reimbursements. State law does not allow candidates to do that. Plus, Courson failed to itemize the reimbursements on his disclosure reports.
"What I did, as far as reimbursing campaign expenses, was not illegal," he said after the hearing. "But the process I did it — I should have done it differently. I agree with that."
Courson said he was following Richard Quinn's advice when he took back the $160,000 in campaign cash that he gave to the Columbia firm over a six-year period. Quinn did not return phone calls Monday.
Courson's attorney reached out to 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who is leading the Statehouse corruption probe, to discuss a deal. Pascoe said Courson realized he had little choice as his trial was about to start.
"I think he saw as they were preparing for trial that even his defense was going to get him convicted," Pascoe said. "I think he decided to do what's right and accept responsibility for that, and I think there's something to be said for that."
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, a Florence Republican and longtime colleague of Courson, said in a statement Monday he still considers Courson a friend.
“However, his guilty plea clearly shows that he violated our citizen’s trust and therefore should no longer be in office," Leatherman said.
In addition to coming to grips with not following the law, Courson is still receiving chemotherapy treatment for melanoma and was not planning to seek re-election in 2020.
"He has been contrite since he has been indicted," Pascoe said. "He has not been out in front of the courthouse saying, 'This is a witch hunt.'"
Courson's resignation letter spoke of regret as he conceded he had let down his constituents "by my actions."
"I will miss serving with the members and staff of the Senate and will cherish the friendships I made," he said.
Courson faced up to 16 years on two counts of misconduct in office and criminal conspiracy. He said he did not regret working with Richard Quinn, a political kingmaker whose clients have included Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond and Lindsey Graham, as well as some of South Carolina's largest corporations and state agencies.
"I think he's a very good political consultant, and probably one of the best on the Republican side we have," Courson said.
All six lawmakers indicted in the Statehouse probe worked with Richard Quinn's firm at some point.
Richard Quinn & Associates pleaded guilty to failing to register as a lobbyist last year and paid $5,500 in fines and restitution as part of the Statehouse investigation. Richard Quinn agreed to testify before the state grand jury as part of a deal to drop charges against him.
Courson's trial was coming a week before the primaries where the corruption cases had become an issue.
Richard Quinn & Associates worked with Gov. Henry McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson, ties that have led to attacks from campaign rivals who pledge to right corruption in Columbia. The governor and attorney general have not been charged in the probe and are no longer working with Richard Quinn.
Two former lawmakers, Tracy Edge and Jim Harrison, await trial in the probe. Pascoe had no timetable on the next cases and declined comment on if more indictments are coming.
Courson, who ranks fourth in seniority in the Senate after more than three decades, was suspended from office after his indictment, leaving his district unrepresented for more than a year. A special election will be held to fill his seat. Filing opens June 22 with a primary on Aug. 14 and a general election on Nov. 6, the same day as other races.
Former S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, a large campaign contribution bundler for President Barack Obama, said he is considering a run after fighting to release documents showing excessive spending by 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson and combating the growth of late-night bars in Columbia's Five Points.
"This is just a six-month fraternity party right now," Harpootlian said of the General Assembly. "They are not in the business of getting business done like in the rest of the world."