COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The attorney for a longtime South Carolina senator accused of pocketing more than $130,000 in campaign donations asked a judge Thursday to dismiss the indictments.
State Sen. John Courson has been suspended since March on charges of using campaign donations for personal expenses and misconduct in office. The 72-year-old Marine and 33-year Senate veteran has adamantly denied the allegations.
His attorney, Rose Mary Parham, argued that Solicitor David Pascoe, the special prosecutor investigating potential Statehouse corruption, has no authority to prosecute Courson.
Parham contends Pascoe’s authority is limited to two legislators named in the state law enforcement report Pascoe used to prosecute former House Speaker Bobby Harrell in 2014. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, handed Harrell’s case to Pascoe, a Democrat, citing an unspecified conflict.
The report was publicly released in November 2014 after Harrell pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance charges and resigned. But portions referencing two other legislators were redacted.
“Solicitor Pascoe does not have the authority to target, investigate or prosecute my client,” Parham told Judge Carmen Mullen. “The only power and authority he has is in regard to the two redacted legislators.”
Pascoe said Parham is using the same arguments Wilson used unsuccessfully before the state Supreme Court in June 2016 after the attorney general tried to fire him. Wilson argued that Pascoe lacked the authority to open a state grand jury to investigate beyond Harrell. The justices disagreed.
“All the same arguments that failed in June should fail today as well,” Pascoe said. “In essence, they’re asking for Mr. Courson to get a free pass, and that makes no sense whatsoever.”
All three charges against Courson are tied to payments to his political consultant, veteran GOP strategist Richard Quinn, between December 2006 and December 2012. The indictments allege Courson gave Quinn’s firm nearly $248,000 and received back nearly $133,000 for personal use.
Two of the counts are misconduct in office. One is written into state law and punishable by up to a year in jail. The other “common law” charge is punishable by 10 years.
Parham also argued Thursday that the common law charge, which dates back hundreds of years, can’t apply to Courson, as its purpose was to prosecute law enforcement officers and judges.
“The common law offense doesn’t exist to elected state officials,” she said. Also, “it’s the same crime, basically the same conduct.”
Pascoe said more than 200 people have been convicted of common law misconduct since 2000, including teachers and a highway department official.
Parham called that irrelevant, saying “all the time people are prosecuted and convicted of things later found unconstitutional.”
Pascoe said the common law charge carries a harsher penalty because it alleges intentional misconduct. It’s the difference, he said, of a public official inadvertently failing to report reimbursements and intentionally using “his campaign account as a piggybank.”
Judge Mullen said she would rule on Parham’s two motions “shortly.”
The redacted legislators she referenced are former House majority leaders Jim Merrill and Rick Quinn, Richard Quinn’s son.
Quinn Jr. faces the same two misconduct charges as Courson. The majority leader from 1999 to 2004 has been suspended since his May indictment. He denies doing anything wrong. The allegations include that Quinn accepted millions from lobbyists through his and his father’s firms and failed to report the income on campaign finance filings and that he acted as a lobbyist while in office by attempting to influence votes on issues benefiting clients.
Merrill, majority leader from 2004 to 2008, pleaded guilty last month to misdemeanor misconduct in office and was sentenced to one year of probation.
The Charleston Republican, who also owns a political and public relations firm, admitted not reporting income on annual disclosure forms from clients who have lobbyists in the Statehouse. He also admitted he should have recused himself from a vote benefiting a client.
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