HOW IT ALL STARTED …
We did a lengthy post last week on the “past, present and future” of #ProbeGate – an ongoing investigation into corruption in South Carolina state government.
This rapidly escalating criminal inquiry has shaken the Palmetto political universe to its very foundations – and by all indications, the most seismic revelations (and consequences) are yet to come.
Almost daily the probe’s dragnet expands … exposing fresh allegations of misdeeds involving public money and public trust.
“The exact depth of the rat hole has yet to be plumbed,” one source close to the investigation told us. “But the rats are scurrying – and squealing.”
In our recent retrospective of #ProbeGate’s many twists and turns, though, we neglected to rewind the tape to the very beginning – to the moment when this investigation was conceived.
You see, there’s a true point of origin to this mushrooming drama – one that deserves to be discussed if for no other reason than to marvel at how significant it has become.
And yet how forgotten it has become … until now.
It’s December 5, 2012, and 124 newly elected (or in most cases, recently reelected) members of the S.C. House of Representatives have gathered in the state capital of Columbia for the second day of a two-day organizational session.
Speaker Bobby Harrell – reelected to his post the previous day with no opposition – is at the zenith of his power. The fiscally liberal legislative leader has solidified his grip on power in the House – and appears poised to extend his authority even further over the coming two-year session.
Harrell has a critical decision to make, though.
S.C. Rep. Rick Quinn – a former majority leader and son of the most powerful GOP consultant in the state – has asked for Harrell to place him on the influential House ways and means committee. This is the panel that takes the first crack at writing the state’s annual budget – which that year would clock in at $22.9 billion (it’s now coming up on $30 billion).
Quinn was a member of this committee during his first stint in the S.C. House – and desperately wanted back on.
What would Harrell do?
The Rev. Charles E. Seastrunk, Jr. convened the gathering at 10:00 a.m. EST on Wednesday morning with a reading from Psalm 25 verse 4 …
Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.
Seastrunk then offered his own supplication …
Bestow Your blessings on our Nation, President, State, Governor, Speaker, staff, this Assembly and all who labor in these Halls of Government.
After the roll was called (119 members were present that day), Harrell announced his committee assignments.
Did Quinn get his coveted ways and means post? No, he did not. Instead, Harrell placed him on the House judiciary committee.
“Bobby knew he couldn’t trust Quinn,” one lawmaker told us.
This “slight” would prove far more significant than anyone could have ever anticipated at the time …
Harrell’s decision set into motion a chain of events that is still unraveling today. First and foremost, it resulted in what certainly appears to have been a coordinated effort to take out Harrell – one led by Quinn’s father, neo-Confederate “Republican” consultant Richard Quinn, S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson (a Quinn client) and Ashley Landess of the S.C. Policy Council (an intimate of the Quinns’ political empire).
Harrell’s downfall was accomplished in October of 2014, when the powerful leader resigned his office and pleaded guilty to six ethics violations centering around improper reimbursements made from his political account.
“This is a start,” Landess (below) told FITSNews at the time of Harrell’s indictment. “Frankly, our expectation is that there is more to come.”
(Click to view)
She had no idea how prophetic those words would become …
Harrell’s collapse appears to have sowed the seeds of an even greater downfall.
Tucked inside a December 2013 S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) report – which effectively served as a charging document against Harrell – were allegations of misconduct against Quinn and one of his longtime legislative allies, S.C. Rep. Jimmy Merrill.
As he did with the Harrell charges, Wilson referred the allegations against Quinn and Merrill to S.C. first circuit solicitor David Pascoe.
The only difference? This time Wilson didn’t support Pascoe – he actively obstructed him.
Why? Because the hunters who had successfully targeted Harrell were now the hunted (with Harrell’s assistance, no less).
Last winter, Pascoe was preparing to convene a grand jury for the purpose of handing down indictments – efforts which were supported by SLED chief Mark Keel and presiding circuit court judge Clifton Newman.
Without offering an explanation, though, Wilson barred Pascoe access to the grand jury. Then he fired him – and attempted to replace him with a different prosecutor (one who declined to take the job). Next, Wilson clumsy attempted to politicize the case – angrily attacking Pascoe’s integrity without any evidence.
According to our sources, Wilson’s obstruction efforts have continued through this year – even though Pascoe defeated him last spring before the S.C. Supreme Court.
Back in December, the hammer fell on Merrill. He was slapped with a detailed thirty-count indictment covering a wide range of alleged pay-to-play offenses – which, collectively, could land him in jail for more than six decades. The breadth and depth of the Merrill indictment – and the specter of additional charges to come against him – shook the S.C. State House to its very foundations. And with good reason.
Now the blow appears poised to fall not only on Rick Quinn – but the vast political network his powerful father has brought to the pinnacle of power. Richard Quinn’s firm represents S.C. Senate president Hugh Leatherman, Senate judiciary chairman Luke Rankin, S.C. Senate minority leader Nikki Setzler, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, governor Henry McMaster, superintendent of education Molly Spearman and numerous government agencies and insider special interests.
Neither Rick nor Richard Quinn have been charged with any criminal activity at point, although the latter was named in a three-count indictment filed against former S.C. Senate president John Courson earlier this month.
Courson is accused of accepting more than $130,000 in kickbacks from Quinn’s consulting firm.
Clearly this investigation has metastasized – casting a pall over multiple politicians, political appointees, state agencies and influential interests. In fact it’s reportedly as big as Operation Lost Trust – a federal sting that brought down seventeen lawmakers on corruption charges in the early 1990s.
And to think: All because a politician didn’t get the committee assignment he wanted …
Banner via Travis Bell Photography