Divided SC Supreme Court rebukes Statehouse probe prosecutor

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A divided South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a prosecutor investigating Statehouse corruption overstepped his authority, but also upheld an 18-month prison sentence for one of the lawmakers caught up in the probe.

Rep. Jim Harrison appealed his 2018 convictions on misconduct in office and perjury charges.

The justices threw out the misconduct in office conviction saying that Solicitor David Pascoe overstepped his authority by continuing a State Grand Jury probe of corruption beyond specific lawmakers who state Attorney General Alan Wilson asked Pascoe's office to prosecute.

But the court upheld the perjury conviction. Harrison lied to the grand jury about what he did to get paid a salary from a political consultant while he was a lawmaker. That conviction carried an 18-month prison sentence that the justices' order meant Harrison would have to serve.

The Supreme Court, in its 3-2 ruling, said it would be up to Wilson to decide whether to try Harrison again on the misconduct in office charge. Investigators accused Harrison of taking money from that same political consultant to support certain bills.

The court's decision came in a complicated 36-page ruling that sought to sum up a complicated case. It began seven years ago as an investigation into ex-House Speaker Bobby Harrell spending campaign money on personal expenses.

The investigation then found political consultant Richard Quinn Sr. and his son, former Rep. Richard Quinn Jr., took more than $4 million from lobbyists to illegally influence legislators.

Quinn Jr., who was once House Majority leader, pleaded guilty and the probe into his firm led to criminal charges against former Rep. Jim Merrill, who took Quinn's place as Majority leader. They both received probation.

Former state Sen. John Courson also pleaded guilty to using Quinn's consulting firm to convert campaign contributions into money for himself. He is awaiting sentencing.

All the lawmakers convicted are Republicans. Harrison was the only one to go to trial, and Wednesday's ruling only affects him.

Attorney General Wilson initially stepped aside when the investigation involved just Harrell, Quinn and Merrill, citing a conflict in interest. Quinn's firm had been Wilson's political consultant when he was first elected in 2010.

When Pascoe expanded the State Grand Jury's investigation to more lawmakers, Wilson objected. He had said he didn't give permission for that.

The state Supreme Court agreed Wednesday.

“We do not reach our decision today lightly, for we recognize the critical societal importance of zealously prosecuting public corruption. Yet, as judges, our allegiance must be to the rule of law, not a particular outcome,” Justice John Kittredge wrote in the majority opinion.

Justice Kaye Hearn said she voted to uphold all of Harrison's convictions because once Wilson turned the investigation over to Pascoe, the new prosecutor had a duty to pursue it wherever the facts led.

“Ultimately, Pascoe did what any prosecutor confronted with further evidence of corruption should do— ‘follow the money' and bring additional public corruption to light,” Hearn wrote.

But Kittredge said that step was following public desires to fight corruption.

"The scintillating directive to ‘follow the money' may be irresistible to a journalist or a prosecutor," Kittredge wrote. “But we are not journalists, and we are not prosecutors. We are judges, and our duty is to follow the rule of law.”

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