U.S. Markets open in 6 hrs 54 mins

GOP powerbroker gets scrutiny amid South Carolina probe

Seanna Adcox, Associated Press

In this May 2004 photo shows Columbia attorney Richard Quinn at an unspecified location. Quinn, a veteran GOP powerbroker whose client roster includes a "who's who of politics" dating to the days of Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan, has come within the crosshairs of a growing probe of possible Statehouse corruption in South Carolina. Richard Quinn hasn't been charged with any crime, but the millions of dollars he's collected and spent on behalf of his clients have become central to an investigation that began with the 2014 prosecution of then-state House speaker. ( Erik Campos/The State via AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- A Republican powerbroker who boasts that his client roster is a "who's who of politics" that included Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan has come within the crosshairs of a growing probe of possible Statehouse corruption in South Carolina.

Richard Quinn hasn't been charged with any crime. But the millions of dollars he's collected and spent on behalf of his clients have become central to an investigation that began with the 2014 prosecution of a longtime state House speaker, who pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor campaign spending violations.

The state Senate's former top leader, John Courson, is the latest lawmaker indicted. A 33-year Senate veteran, Courson was accused last month of pocketing more than $130,000 over six years by essentially funneling campaign donations through Quinn's firm. The indictment of a senator once honored for ethics reform stunned lawmakers from both parties — and signified the probe is far-reaching.

Both Courson and Quinn say the allegations are false. Quinn has repeatedly declined comment on the investigation.

Now the probe of South Carolina's conservative power elites is drawing attention beyond the state. Scrutiny of Quinn comes arguably at the height of his success, four decades after he founded the consulting firm that has gone on to serve many of the state's top politicians.

When Quinn set out in 1978, South Carolina was dominated by Democrats. He helped flip control to Republicans as he amassed clients for Richard Quinn & Associates, boasting the state's late GOP Sen. Thurmond among early clients. He was influential in presidential primaries, helping to give the key first-in-the-South win to John McCain in 2008 and Newt Gingrich in 2012.

One of his biggest clients is U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose campaigns have paid Quinn's firms $2.7 million since his first U.S. Senate election in 2002, according to campaign filings. Graham said he doesn't know where the investigation will lead, "but I'm very proud of my campaign and the people running it."

"Richard Quinn has been a friend for a very long time," Graham said recently. "I don't know what this is all about, but we'll soon find out."

According to its website, Quinn's firm has helped hundreds of clients win local, state and federal offices. And when Nikki Haley became U.N. ambassador, the ascension of Henry McMaster to her seat put the first Quinn client in the governor's chair.

Quinn's importance is in his "collection of so many important politicians. We've never seen anyone in the past coming out of a consulting firm really have such a collection — a glittering array of people," said Neal Thigpen, a Republican activist and political scientist.

Solicitor David Pascoe is leading the investigation. The Democrat, first elected in 2004 as chief prosecutor for three counties, is apparently digging deep. A 2004 review of state GOP finances is among documents he's subpoenaed.

Courson's attorney, Rose Mary Parham, accuses Pascoe of a "political, partisan witch hunt." But Pascoe has remained silent, saying only that the investigation is ongoing.

Ironically, a Quinn client handed Pascoe the case that's ensnared Quinn.

Attorney General Alan Wilson, whose campaigns have paid Quinn's firm more than $515,000 since 2009, originally pursued charges against former House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

But Wilson transferred the case to Pascoe in 2014, citing an unspecified conflict. After Harrell pleaded guilty, Wilson tried to fire the Democratic solicitor, saying he lacked the authority to open a state grand jury to investigate further. The state Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in Pascoe's favor last July.

Months later, former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill was charged with illegally profiting from his position. The Charleston Republican, who has his own political consulting firm, said he's done nothing illegal.

Merrill's 30-count indictment marked the first charges since Harrell resigned. And any speculation the investigation had fizzled was dashed as questions turned to how many others might be ensnared.

"Pascoe has no limits on what he can do," said John Crangle, the longtime director of Common Cause South Carolina. "He can keep this thing going as long as he thinks he can find bad guys."

It's unclear how many political clients the probe may cost Quinn.

McMaster, who's paid Quinn more than $300,000 since 2002, said he's sticking with Quinn for his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. McMaster has been a Quinn client since 1993, when he became state GOP chairman.

While a review of the party's finances under McMaster is among the documents Pascoe has collected, there's no indication McMaster himself is a target of the probe — and he's not been interviewed or subpoenaed.

"They do excellent work. I see no reason to stop working with them at this time," McMaster said recently.

___

Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this article.