A controversial probationary sentence imposed on a former South Carolina legislative leader was upheld on Wednesday by the S.C. supreme court – although the real legal drama associated with this ongoing political/ prosecutorial soap opera was left unresolved.
In fact, justices explicitly declined to address the larger issue at hand – although one justice indicated it would be dealt with in the context of another case currently pending before the state’s judiciary.
First, the sentencing ruling: Former S.C. majority leader Rick Quinn will remain a free man after justices ruled unanimously that S.C. circuit court judge Carmen Mullen did not overstep her authority in giving the ex-politician a two-year probationary sentence in February of 2018.
That sentence had been challenged by S.C. first circuit solicitor David Pascoe – who repeatedly sparred with Mullen during his pursuit of plea agreements and/ or convictions tied to ProbeGate, a multi-year investigation into public corruption at the S.C. State House.
Actually, the court ruled that Pascoe had no right to bring the case in the first place because he failed to “make a contemporaneous objection to the plea” at the time it was filed.
“The state cannot appeal the guilty plea,” the justices ruled.
Beyond that, the court unanimously rejected Pascoe’s argument that Mullen showed bias in the case by allegedly instructing the prosecutor to “go light on the facts so the plea won’t blow up” during a December 2017 hearing at which Quinn copped to misconduct in office and resigned his office.
“The trial court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing Rick Quinn, Jr., and there is no evidence of judicial bias or prejudice requiring the court to recuse itself,” the justices ruled.
To recap: Quinn offered his guilty plea as part of a broader agreement to have conspiracy charges dropped against his father, once-powerful “Republican” political strategist Richard Quinn.
The elder Quinn has since been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with this ongoing investigation – which began in the fall of 2014 and yielded either guilty pleas or convictions of five former legislative leaders: Quinn, former S.C. speaker Bobby Harrell, former S.C. Senate president John Courson, former S.C. House majority leader Jimmy Merrill and former S.C. House judiciary committee chairman/ state code commissioner Jim Harrison.
(Click to view)
According to Pascoe, Quinn was “the most corrupt lawmaker” of the bunch – a key cog in an elaborate pay-to-play network run by his father.
(More on that network in a moment …)
Given the alleged starring role Quinn played in his father’s empire, Pascoe asked Mullen to sentence the former lawmaker to a year in jail on the misconduct in office charge to which he pleaded guilty.
“I ask that he serve every day of that (sentence),” Pascoe urged the judge, saying that the court needed to “send a message” to other corrupt lawmakers.
Mullen declined to do so, though … and rightly or wrongly, the court has upheld her decision.
Left unresolved, though? The issue of accountability regarding the influential corporate entities who benefited from this pay-to-play corruption.
“Corporate entities retained Richard Quinn for the purpose of gaining access to and influence over public officials, and by failing to report Quinn’s services, influenced the outcome of legislative matters with no accountability or disclosure to the public,” the grand jurors who investigated Quinn and his cronies wrote in a report released in October of 2018.
Yet while the grand jury determined probable cause existed to charge these corporate defendants, they were able to avoid prosecution thanks to several “corporate integrity agreements” reached with Pascoe’s office.
These agreements consisted of more than $350,000 in monetary fines paid by the corporate defendants … directly to Pascoe’s office.
(Click to view)
Those corporate integrity agreements always rubbed us the wrong way. Specifically, the entire ProbeGate investigation “left far too much meat on the bone as far as we are concerned – particularly with regard to the corporate clients implicated in this pay-to-play scandal,” we noted in December 2018.
More recently, we wrote that “allowing corporate entities to basically buy their way out of facing criminal charges is not ‘integrity,’ in fact some would argue it is no better than the sort of behavior Pascoe was prosecuting in the first place.”
Two months ago, supreme court justices challenged the legitimacy of these agreements in the context of Quinn’s appeal – putting the prosecutor on the spot regarding his authority to negotiate such deals and his decision to appropriate the proceeds from them unto his own office.
“The court’s decision to inject itself into this aspect of the case is clearly quite significant – threatening to flip the script on the entire ProbeGate narrative,” we noted at the time. “Up until this point, Pascoe has been portrayed as a crusading prosecutor looking to sweep the State House clean of corruption. Now he is the one on the defensive against similar allegations.”
After raising the issue of these agreements (rightfully, in our estimation) in the context of the Quinn appeal, though, justices declined to to address them in issuing a ruling on his sentence.
“We decline to address the issue of the state’s corporate integrity agreements, as it has no bearing on the resolution of this case, and we express no opinion as to the propriety of these agreements at this time,” justices wrote.
(Click to view)
In a sharply worded concurring opinion, however, justice John Few (above) made it abundantly clear that the “propriety” of these agreements was something the court intended to take up in the future.
Few also pulled no punches in offering his assessment of such agreements.
“Pascoe uses the term ‘corporate integrity agreement’ to mean the payment of money to Pascoe’s First Circuit Solicitor’s Office by entities he has under investigation in exchange for a promise by Pascoe not to prosecute the entity, so Pascoe then has funds to prosecute entities or persons who either were not invited to pay or refused to pay.”
“On one hand, by his own description, Pascoe allowed the most corrupt
politician in Columbia (Quinn) and the most corrupt entity in politics (Richard Quinn & Associates) to go essentially scot free,” Few added. “On the other hand, Pascoe accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from major South Carolina corporations on the promise not to prosecute them for conduct the State Grand Jury found probable cause to believe is criminal.”
Yeah … anyone care to guess how this is going to end for Pascoe?
Drilling down even deeper, Few expressed skepticism regarding Pascoe’s claims that his office needed the money to continue its investigation. This news outlet is curious as to those representations, too. In fact, we are mulling whether to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the first circuit solicitor’s office in the hopes of obtaining the financial records of the investigation.
Bottom line? Nearly six years after it began, ProbeGate is continuing to generate headlines. Our hope? That this latest legal battle shines a light on the need for real accountability when it comes to those individuals and entities who are determined to have violated the public trust.
EXTRA: SUPREME COURT RULING
(Via: S.C. Supreme Court)
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