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Why Rick Quinn's Statehouse corruption case landed in SC Supreme Court

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Former State Rep. Rick Quinn,, left, stands with his father, political consultant Richard Quinn, in court in Beaufort after Rick Quinn's sentencing in 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The upcoming S.C. Supreme Court hearing on former lawmaker Rick Quinn's Statehouse corruption case is not really about Rick Quinn.

In what sounds like a man arguing with himself, prosecutor David Pascoe is appealing the plea deal he struck with the state representative from Lexington.

Pascoe is doing this because he disagreed with Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen's 2018 decision to not sentence Quinn to prison on allegations that he failed to report on disclosure forms more than $4 million in payments to his family's companies from businesses and state agencies that lobby the Legislature. Pascoe argues in court documents that Mullen has shown bias against him, an allegation charge she denies in court filings. 

Quinn got probation, which he completed earlier this year. But now that he's caught in the middle of this Pascoe-Mullen battle, Quinn could go to prison.

The Supreme Court could order a sentencing do-over or throw out the agreement all together. On the other hand, justices could say Mullen erred but not change the sentence or rule against Pascoe.

"It has more to do with Judge Mullen than the plea agreement," Pascoe said of his appeal of Quinn's sentencing, set for a Oct. 15 hearing before the high court.

The hearing is just another bizarre twist in a sweeping Statehouse probe continuing into its sixth year and now headed to the Supreme Court for a third time.

In 2014, two of the state's most powerful politicians, House Speaker Bobby Harrell and state Attorney General Alan Wilson, squared off over allegations that Harrell spent campaign money for personal expenses.

First, Harrell tried unsuccessfully to have Wilson, the state's top law enforcement official, removed from prosecuting the case. Then a circuit judge halted the state probe after ruling the House Ethics Committee should first investigate the charges against the Charleston legislator.

Their tug-of-war landed in the S.C. Supreme Court where justices overruled the lower court and let Wilson resume his investigation, which ended with a guilty plea by Harrell.

Two years later, Wilson fought Pascoe, the 1st Circuit Solicitor assigned to handle the probe after the attorney general recused his office citing then-unspecified conflicts. (Later, it was learned a state investigative report on possible Statehouse corruption mentioned Rick Quinn and his father, Richard, who was Wilson's campaign adviser.)

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When Pascoe accused Wilson of impeding the probe, the attorney general tried to regain control of the investigation. At a news conference before a Supreme Court hearing, Wilson angrily attacked the Orangeburg-based prosecutor ("He clearly doesn’t know what he is doing") and argued openly with a reporter ("I will answer that question if you tell me how you knew to walk into the Supreme Court shortly after the pleadings were filed"). 

Wilson lost and Pascoe hung onto the probe that now has led to guilty pleas from four state lawmakers, the conviction of a fifth legislator, and pending charges against a former state representative as well as Richard Quinn, who before the investigation was one of the South's most influential political kingmakers.  

The latest Supreme Court fight started with February 2018 hearings over Rick Quinn's plea deal that included heated exchanges between a prosecutor and a judge.

Pascoe wanted Quinn, a former House majority leader, sent to prison for up to a year on charges of using his office for personal gain over a number of years.

Instead, Mullen sentenced him to probation based on one incident — failing to report the conflict that he rented an office to the University of South Carolina, which lobbies the Legislature. She also chastised Pascoe. The judge, who declined comment last week, presumed Quinn was innocent of any other allegations.

"If Richard Quinn Jr. was the 'worst of the worst,' why are you allowing him to plea to one misdemeanor count of statutory misconduct in office(?)" Mullen said to Pascoe.

Pascoe asked Mullen to reconsider her sentence. At a separate hearing, they argued over, among other things, private conversations between the judge and the defense legal team, which Mullen disputed: "When you make allegations like that, Mr. Pascoe, you better have something to back it up."

Pascoe appealed Mullen's sentencing and accused the judge of bias. He cited critical comments Mullen's court reporter made online on news stories about the case before the reporter was removed.

In his filing, Pascoe asked to have Mullen's decision reversed and reassign the case to another judge. At least, he wants the court to find that Mullen "committed an abuse of discretion" by sentencing Quinn on an "erroneous legal conclusion."

For his part, Quinn wants the high court to back his original sentence — arguing that Pascoe cannot appeal his own plea deal.

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