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$352K used to avoid prosecution could go to fight SC State House corruption

The State (Columbia, SC) logo The State (Columbia, SC) 4/29/2021 John Monk, The State (Columbia, S.C.)

Apr. 29—COLUMBIA, S.C. — Special prosecutor David Pascoe said Thursday he wants to give $352,000 that his investigative team collected from five powerful organizations including the University of South Carolina to the S.C. Ethics Commission.

The money is from five separate corporate integrity agreements Pascoe and his team made during his nearly seven-year investigation of questionable lobbying practices and secret payments to lawmakers in the the S.C. General Assembly.

Pascoe made known his intentions about the money, which for several years has been untouched in escrow accounts, shortly before noon Thursday at the Richland County courthouse.

There, during a brief hearing before Judge Robert Hood, Pascoe submitted an eight-page memo about what to do with the money to the judge.

"The five corporations are AT&T, Palmetto Health (now part of Prisma Midlands), SCANA, the University of South Carolina, and the South Carolina Association for Justice (a trial lawyers' group). In total, the agreements provide for payments totaling $352,000, among other conditions, in exchange for the State's promise not to proceed with criminal charges," Pascoe said in his memo.

Under the corporate integrity agreements, those groups agreed to pay the state varying amounts of money but admitted no wrongdoing. In return, Pascoe promised not to prosecute them.

Under a January S.C. Supreme Court decision, it is up to Hood — as current presiding judge of the State Grand Jury — to decide what to do with the $352,000.

Corporate integrity agreements are used by both state and federal prosecutors around the country. Instead of investigating and prosecuting a company that is suspected of questionable practices, the prosecutor and the company sign an agreement in which the company agrees to operate ethically, pay a sum of money and — at the same time — admits no wrong-doing.

Referring to the agreements as "non-prosecution agreements," Pascoe told Hood that "These agreements are a huge victory for our state" and "brought an unprecedented level of accountability" to lobbying actions in the General Assembly.

Pascoe told Hood that, although enough evidence likely existed to get a state grand jury to issue indictments for unlawful lobbying practices against the five entities, it would have been tough to gather enough evidence to convince a jury in a trial "beyond a reasonable doubt" of the charges, had the cases gone to trial.

It was only after consulting with the State Grand Jury and its presiding judge at the time, Clifton Newman, that he decided on corporate integrity agreements, Pascoe told Hood.

Difficulties with bringing a full-fledged criminal case against the companies would have included proving criminal intent, statute of limitations issues and "the enormous costs of years of protracted litigation" for minimal fines that were likely to be no more than $2,500, Pascoe said.

"The alternative (to the agreements) was to look the other way, which would have continued the cycle of apathy and lack of transparency which are our state's biggest problems in fighting corruption," Pascoe told Hood.

Payments made in the corporate integrity agreements were $30,000 from the Association for Justice; $60,000 from AT&T; $100,000 from Palmetto Health; $72,000 from SCANA; and $90,000 from the University of South Carolina, Pascoe told Hood.

The size of the payments were based on the amount of money those groups paid Richard Quinn Sr.'s consulting firm over the years "to do their bidding up at the State House," Pascoe told Hood.

The Quinn firm was known for its superb connections with South Carolina politicians, but it was not registered as a lobbyist. In 2018, the Quinn firm paid a $2,500 fine and $3,000 in restitution for failing to register as a lobbyist. That firm's leader, political consultant Richard Quinn Sr., still faces perjury charges tied to his testimony before the State Grand Jury.

Pascoe, who is also the elected solicitor of the 1st Judicial Circuit, said although his office had considerable expenses — at least some $238,000 — during his multi-year investigation of General Assembly corruption, "not a penny (of the corporate integrity agreement money) has been touched."

"We are waiving any right to those funds, but we are requesting those funds be directed to the S.C. Ethics Commission — the agency tasked with oversight of lobbying activities," Pascoe said.

Corporate integrity agreements were only one feature of Pascoe's wide-ranging investigation into public corruption in the S.C. General Assembly.

In his nearly seven-year probe of the General Assembly, Pascoe and his team of investigators from the State Law Enforcement Division won guilty pleas against former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston; former House Majority Leader Rick Quinn Jr., R-Lexington; former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley; and former Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, who has not been sentenced. Harrell, Merrill and Quinn Jr. all resigned from the General Assembly and pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. All received probation.

Former Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, who had been chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, fought charges in court and was convicted. Though the Supreme Court later overturned a misconduct charge against him, saying Pascoe was out of his jurisdiction in bringing that charge, the high court upheld a perjury charge and Harrison's prison sentence.

During the course of the probe, Pascoe's team, which also included prosecutors from his 1st Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office, was aided by the State Grand Jury, which has broad subpoena powers, to get financial records from places such as banks.

The remaining business from the probe includes Courson's sentencing and the prosecution of former state Rep. Tracy Edge, R-Horry, and Quinn Sr. No date has been set in any of the cases.

State Attorney General Alan Wilson has turned those cases over to Spartanburg County Solicitor Barry Barnette, who will now act as special prosecutor.

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