Any question that the state Supreme Court did the right thing by keeping 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe on the Statehouse corruption case was answered in The Post and Courier’s Sunday news report about email communications between state Attorney General Alan Wilson and Columbia political consultant Richard Quinn. Simply put, Pascoe did not have a conflict of interest in the case.
But the attorney general evidently did, considering that Wilson was emailing Richard Quinn about an investigation in which the consultant’s name had already surfaced. In the email, Wilson was contacting his longtime political adviser about a letter he intended to send Pascoe, taking him off the case as it moved into its next phase.
Wilson insisted in comments to the Charleston newspaper’s reporter that he was only seeking Quinn’s advice on style and grammar points in the letter. He said he wanted to ensure the letter didn’t seem too hostile and that his grammar was correct.
Taking that explanation at face value suggests that Wilson has an exceptionally dependent relationship with his political adviser. A more plausible explanation would be that he was signaling his intention to fire Pascoe.
Here’s how John Freeman, a University of South Carolina law professor and legal ethicist, described Wilson’s communication: “I have never heard of a chief prosecutor deliberately sharing confidential information of plans concerning a criminal investigation with someone who was a target or subject of the investigation.” He added, “Mr. Wilson has some explaining to do.”
It was a startling indiscretion, at the least, particularly in view of the attorney general’s previous acknowledgment of a potential conflict of interest in taking on the corruption case. Indeed, that’s why he named Pascoe as special prosecutor in the first place.
The letter was to inform Pascoe of his removal as special prosecutor in the corruption probe, which continued following the guilty plea and resignation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell. Wilson had decided that lawyers with his office should take the case moving forward. The Post and Courier obtained the October 2014 email correspondence via the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
Ultimately, Wilson didn’t send the letter, but said he told Pascoe of his decision in a telephone call. Wilson described the call as “pleasant.”
Certainly, the aftermath was anything but, as Pascoe decided to contest the attorney general’s decision, and consequently was professionally derided by Wilson in a press conference. The Supreme Court ruled in Pascoe’s favor in July 2016, but the investigation was delayed for months as a result of the dispute.
Since then, a grand jury has handed down indictments of three legislators, including Sen. John Courson, who is accused of laundering campaign funds for personal use through Richard Quinn and Associates, and Rep. Rick Quinn, who is charged with failing to report more than $4.5 million paid to political consulting and mailing companies operated by him and his father, Richard Quinn.
The email correspondence has also raised questions about the use of private emails to do the public’s business — a situation that could limit public scrutiny that the FOIA seeks to ensure. That’s an issue the Legislature needs to address.
Mainly, though, it raises questions about Wilson’s judgment and the reasons it might have been clouded leading up to his dispute with Pascoe. Clearly the attorney general has more explaining to do.
Since publication of The Post and Courier’s article and this editorial by the Charleston newspaper, the S.C. Democratic Party called for Attorney General Alan Wilson to resign. Wilson responded publicly on Wednesday, calling the Democrats’ request “laughable and ridiculous.” On the same day, Gov. Henry McMaster rejected Democrats’ calls to suspend Wilson, saying he has no authority to do so and would not do so if he did.