No member of South Carolina’s scandal-scarred judiciary has been in the news more of late than Carmen Mullen – a Lowcountry circuit court judge who is reportedly among the targets of the public corruption investigation tied to the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ crime and corruption saga.
That public corruption inquiry is purportedly looking into numerous judges who coddled the once-powerful “House of Murdaugh” – a legal dynasty which ran the Palmetto Lowcounty like a fiefdom for nearly a century.
Former FITSNews’ staffers Liz Farrell and Mandy Matney have made Mullen a focus of their popular podcast in recent weeks. Meanwhile, reporters Glenn Smith and Avery Wilks of The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier published an extensive piece last month on her role in a 2017 incident in which Mullen allegedly abused her power in an attempt to arrest a mentally ill Hilton Head Island, S.C. attorney, Ernest Lotito.
Of interest? Mullen submitted written responses to Smith and Wilks denying any impropriety in the Lotito incident – breaking with a long-standing tradition of Palmetto State judges not commenting for media stories.
Mullen’s role in the Lotito incident has certainly raised questions … but the real roots of her judicial unfitness go much deeper than that. And should have compelled the S.C. supreme court to take action against her many years ago.
First, let’s look at Mullen’s messy role in the Murdaugh saga …
Readers will recall Mullen appears to have played a key part in the injustice done to Gloria Satterfield, the longtime housekeeper for the family of Alex Murdaugh.
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Satterfield (above) died following a reported “slip and fall” at the Murdaugh family hunting property in February of 2018, however agents of the S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED) opened a criminal investigation into her death in September 2021.
That inquiry was based on “information gathered during the course of our other ongoing investigations involving Alex Murdaugh,” the agency noted at the time.
Murdaugh and others are facing criminal charges after allegedly defrauding Satterfield’s family out of a $4.3 million settlement paid from one of Murdaugh’s insurance companies – one of many alleged financial fleecings. Among other crimes, the disbarred 54-year-old attorney also stands accused of killing both his son Paul Murdaugh and his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, on the Moselle property on June 7, 2021.
Mullen was the judge who reportedly signed the agreement in the spring of 2019, however the document bearing her signature (or what appears to be her signature) did not have a docket number on it … which should have been a huge red flag.
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Bland said Mullen should have “never heard the (Satterfield) case” because it was not entered into the court’s record. Also, Mullen signed the order after she recused herself in connection with a 2019 boat crash case which thrust the Murdaugh family into the statewide limelight.
According to sworn testimony from one of Murdaugh’s alleged co-conspirators, Mullen was informed of – and allegedly agreed to participate in – a plan to delay the required filing of documents in connection with the Satterfield case.
Why would the judge recuse herself in one case involving the Murdaughs but not another?
And why would she agree to delay the filings?
Bland attempted to depose Mullen in the hopes of getting answers regarding her role in the Satterfied saga, but veteran S.C. circuit court judge Casey Manning allegedly intervened on her behalf – and Bland backed down.
“I was told by several lawyer friends of mine that it probably was not a good idea to seek to depose her because I was going to have to ultimately make that request to the supreme court when she declined … and that the court most likely would not grant the request,” Bland said at the time.
I reported on all of this extensively last fall, noting Manning has been a longtime mentor to Mullen – who was his former law clerk. Sources familiar with this relationship say it remains extremely close – with Manning often referring to Mullen as his “daughter.”
This matters because Manning is a member of the S.C. Commission on Judicial Conduct (SCCJC), a panel which hears complaints filed against South Carolina judges. And as I noted last fall, sources familiar with the inner workings of this panel claim Manning has shielded Mullen from several complaints filed against her in recent years.
Among the complaints against Mullen? Two which were filed by S.C. first circuit solicitor David Pascoe in connection with ProbeGate, an investigation into public corruption at the S.C. State House which ended (for the most part) with a fizzle in 2018.
ProbeGate revolved around the political empire of Richard Quinn, a “Republican” strategist who amassed unrivaled power and near-unprecedented influence in the Palmetto State – at least prior to his stable of pay-to-play politicians becoming the central focus of an investigation into them peddling their influence on behalf of wealthy special interests.
“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 ProbeGate wrote in a report released in October of 2018.
Unfortunately, none of those corporate entities were ever held accountable …
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Three former legislative leaders with ties to Quinn (above) pleaded guilty to corruption charges and resigned their offices in connection with this investigation: Former S.C. Senate president John Courson, former House majority leader Jimmy Merrill and former House majority leader Rick Quinn (Richard Quinn’s son). A fourth legislative leader who was part of the Quinndom – former S.C. House judiciary chairman Jim Harrison – was convicted of perjury and misconduct in office in October of 2018.
Mullen was the judge in this case – utterly failing to distinguish herself by doling out exceedingly lenient sentences and engaging in all manner of inappropriate ex parte communications.
For those of you unhip to legal jargon, ex parte is Latin for “one side only” and refers to a judge having conversations with one party to a legal action (or that party’s attorneys) outside the presence of the other party (or the other party’s attorneys).
Things got so bad I called on Mullen to recuse herself from the investigation in early 2018 – which she refused to do.
Pascoe was originally responsible for overseeing the criminal case against Quinn, but last year S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson referred all remaining criminal cases connected to ProbeGate to S.C. seventh circuit solicitor Barry Barnette. Last spring, Barnette re-indicted Quinn.
What’s happened since then? Nothing …
According to a September 2022 report from John Monk of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper, “no action has been taken in fifteen months on a pending state grand jury indictment” against Quinn.
Make that seventeen months …
According to Monk, one of Quinn’s attorneys, Rauch Wise, “has been trying to get a motion to dismiss the charges against his client heard before (Mullen) … but he’s been unable to.”
“We’re awaiting a hearing on our motion to dismiss the case,” Wise told Monk. “A hearing has been tentatively scheduled, but it keeps getting bumped back.”
Sources familiar with the case say prosecutors in Barnette’s office have also tried – and failed – to get Mullen to schedule a hearing in the case.
Why is Mullen refusing to hear this case?
Pascoe filed another complaint against Mullen in February of this year based on her “purported attempt to benefit a litigant in the Satterfield-Murdaugh matter.”
“The new allegations brought against judge Mullen should not be a surprise to the commission,” Pascoe wrote in his 2022 complaint (.pdf), accusing the judge of “an unremitting pattern of improper activity that merits close examination” and of “similar (prior) allegations of misconduct … which (have) impugned the integrity of the judiciary.”
“Judge Mullen’s pattern of alleged conduct threatens to erode public trust in our judiciary,” Pascoe added. “Impropriety and dishonesty by members of state’s judiciary cause real harm to all South Carolinians. When wealthy and politically connected individuals are treated as a privileged class by members of the judiciary, it erodes public trust in government and the fair administration of law.”
The deeper I have dug into Mullen’s ProbeGate mess in the aftermath of the Murdaugh revelations, the more concerned I am by some of the accusations which have been leveled against her. Specifically, new revelations suggest the judge was using her position on the bench to try and obtain information on would-be political rivals.
Readers will recall Mullen’s husband – Hilton Head, S.C. attorney George E. Mullen – has contributed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of ethically challenged S.C. lawyer-legislator Luke Rankin, who currently serves as chairman of the powerful S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC).
George Mullen’s law firm has also contributed thousands of dollars to Rankin’s campaigns.
Why is this relevant? Because on the night of December 12, 2017 – a week after the Lotito incident – Mullen allegedly reached out to Pascoe seeking information about potential targets of the ProbeGate inquiry.
“The court reached out to the (solicitor) on the evening of December 12, 2017,” Pascoe wrote in a filing (.pdf) submitted on April 9, 2018. “As the court should recall, much of that ex parte conversation involved an inquiry about potential targets of the underlying state grand jury investigation, and the state refrained from answering (Mullen)’s questions.”
Pascoe has never said publicly which “potential targets” Mullen asked him about, however sources familiar with the situation indicate she inquired as to whether McMaster was a target of the investigation.
You read that right: A sitting judge presiding over a public corruption case attempted to go offline with the prosecutor in that case to get inside information on whether one of her potential political rivals was implicated.
Given the breadth and depth of the allegations against Mullen – on multiple fronts – I believe the supreme court has no choice but to suspend her from hearing any cases pending a resolution of the myriad allegations against her. There is simply too much smoke (emanating from too many areas) for there not to be at least some fire.
Furthermore, the court needs to come clean as it relates to the ongoing failure of its self-policing mechanisms (or lack thereof) when it comes to disciplining rogue judges.
Clearly that process has failed here …
At the very least, Mullen’s continued failure to set a hearing in the remaining ProbeGate cases is cause for her to be removed from that case …
Finally, all of this is yet another reminder that South Carolina must scrap – and radically reinvent– its shamelessly corrupt judicial selection process.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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