The South Carolina supreme court heard oral arguments late last week in connection with an ongoing debate over ProbeGate, the multi-year investigation into public corruption at the S.C. State House that brought down several top Republican elected officials.
The immediate issue facing the court? The status of an October 2018 guilty verdict entered against former S.C. judiciary chairman and code commissioner Jim Harrison – one of five ranking GOP leaders ensnared in the pay-to-play scandal at the heart of this investigation. Harrison was found guilty at trial and sentenced to a year-and-a-half in prison – the only ProbeGate defendant to draw a jail sentence.
The ex-lawmaker remains free on an appeal bond, however.
Four other defendants – former speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, former Senate president John Courson, former House majority leader Jimmy Merrill and former majority leader Rick Quinn – all pleaded guilty and were placed on probation in connection with the investigation.
With the exception of Harrell – the original target of the inquiry – all of these politicians were part of a political empire run by Quinn’s father, veteran “Republican” strategist Richard Quinn. The elder Quinn was originally charged with conspiracy in connection with the case, but that charge was dropped as part of a controversial plea deal that prosecutors believed would result in jail time for his son.
But that didn’t happen …
The elder Quinn has since been charged with multiple counts of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to a statewide grand jury on numerous occasions during its investigation of his empire.
According to S.C. first circuit solicitor David Pascoe – who led the ProbeGate investigation – Quinn was the ringleader of a pay-to-play network that sold its considerable influence within state government to the highest bidder.
“(Quinn) used legislators, groomed legislators and conspired with legislators to violate multiple state ethics acts,” Pascoe said in detailing the original charges against Quinn. “All so he could make money.”
“He was a very effective but illegal lobbyist,” Pascoe added, referring to Quinn. “All under the radar.”
The grand jury agreed with that premise …
“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.
The problem? While Pascoe’s investigation was able to hold numerous corrupt legislative leaders partially accountable for their misdeeds on an individual level, it failed to do the same for the corporations and government agencies pulling their strings.
Even though grand jurors 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.
Shady? Very …
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As ardent supporters of Pascoe’s investigation for several years, these agreements troubled us. In fact 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 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.”
Prior to last week’s oral arguments, one supreme court justice (rightfully) ripped Pascoe over these 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,” justice John Few wrote in a scathing opinion earlier this year.
Few was comparatively tame in his remarks during the oral arguments, however he did ask Harrison’s attorney Bobby Stepp to explain how the execution of these dubious agreements may have prejudiced the former lawmaker.
Stepp responded that “if those agreements hadn’t been in place, the whole testimony would have been different,” referring to the corporate witnesses called by Pascoe against Harrison.
“They would have denied that it was improper for Jim Harrison to be on (Quinn’s) payroll,” Stepp said. “They would have denied that they asked Harrison to do anything or that Harrison did anything for them.”
“The implication of this whole trial – although couched in some other charges – was that Harrison sold his vote for these people,” Stepp continued, adding that the testimony of the corporate defendants against his client was “fundamental” to this implication.
Those are pretty good arguments, if you ask us …
Stepp took it further, claiming the dubious deals were “part and parcel to the unlawful extension of authority” to Pascoe. He also accused Pascoe of “prosecutorial misconduct” in regards to pursuing his case against Harrison.
“There are so many violations of so many principles that go to the very heart of due process,” Stepp said. “Not only were the proceedings illegitimate, but the trial itself was tainted.”
We wouldn’t go that far, but if the court concludes Pascoe’s agreements with the corporate defendants were invalid, it could jeopardize the entire investigation.
Pascoe vigorously defended his conduct in pursuing the ProbeGate charges – and the controversial corporate integrity agreements he reached with multiple defendants. He also offered a terse reply to questioning from justice George James Jr. about what remedy would be available to Harrison in the event the court determined Pascoe wrongly exercised his authority to prosecute the former lawmaker.
“I’m not wrong,” Pascoe fired back at the justice.
“Stop right there,” James shot back. “I’m not going to let you answer the question that way. I want to know what the answer to my question is.”
“I honestly don’t know,” Pascoe responded. “The remedy is I think the conviction still stands.”
This news outlet has never questioned Pascoe’s authority to conduct these prosecutions. In fact, for several years we aggressively advocated on behalf of his authority to do so. Furthermore, we believe it is abundantly clear his investigation uncovered incontrovertible evidence of systemic corruption within state government – for which five ranking Republican lawmakers were held partially accountable via their resignations from positions of public trust.
However, it seems equally clear there is zero “integrity” associated with doling out slaps on the wrist to corrupt puppets – while letting the puppet masters buy their way out of criminal consequences.
By entering into these legally questionable, ethically dubious agreements with corporate defendants, Pascoe has not only lost all credibility as a crusader against public corruption in this case … he has jeopardized all of the good work he previously did.
As we have previously stated, public corruption will never be brought to heel in the Palmetto State unless there are real consequences for those who engage in corrupt behavior.
“If citizens want real accountability when their money is stolen, when their rights are violated, when their trust is abused and when their faith in the institutions they rely upon for equal justice is betrayed, then they have to insist upon it … and that starts by making their elected leaders insist upon it,” we wrote earlier this year. “Absent such a deterrent, corruption will continue to run rampant in South Carolina.”
And despite its early promise, ProbeGate has done nothing to move that needle in the right direction …
UPDATE: For those of you interested in following the oral arguments in this case can view them here …
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