John Courson resigns seat, pleads guilty. So NOW what?

The empty space in the State House underground lot. I shot this in early April .

The empty space in the State House underground lot. I shot this in early April . It’s been vacant a LONG time.

Sen. John Courson has entered a guilty plea and resigned his seat in the Senate.

This is a sad day, as I — like most people who have interacted with him over the years — have always liked and respected him, so this is very disappointing.

If you want comments from someone who is pleased by this situation and will talk with satisfaction about how the senator “got what he deserved,” I refer you to our own Doug Ross.

For me, this is an opportunity to bring up a number of things I’ve been thinking about in the last few days:

  • First, whither the Pascoe investigation? John Monk reports that Courson has “agreed to cooperate with an ongoing investigation into public corruption in the S.C. State House.” Is there an ongoing investigation? Because it doesn’t seem to have “ongone” anywhere in the last few months, ever since charges were dropped against Richard Quinn, Rick Quinn was allowed to plead to a misdemeanor, and the special prosecutor David Pascoe criticized the judge for not sentencing Quinn fils to prison, even though he, Pascoe, had allowed him to plead to a charge that did not warrant prison. Since then, the probe has seemed to be in limbo. Is it coming back to life now?
  • If it does come back to life — or is perceived to be doing so — what does that do to the governor’s race? Does it affect the primary a week from tomorrow? To what extent will the incumbent’s primary challengers try to make hay from this resurrection of the topic, trumpeting McMaster’s long association with Richard Quinn? To what extent will that work? (We’ll discuss later what effect all this might have on the gubernatorial race in the fall, if McMaster is the nominee.)
  • Will this cause the attack on James Smith that did not happen two weeks ago to happen now? I’m still puzzled that the rumored attack did not materialize when expected. Did the attackers have an attack of conscience (I’m trying to consider ALL possibilities, you see)? Will this tempt them to do their dastardly, unfair worst? Given some things I’ve seen happening in the Democratic contest lately (more on that later), very little would shock me.
  • What, if anything, happens in the GOP race for attorney general? Several months ago, it looked like this was going to be a knock-down-drag-out, with the Pascoe probe as the topic dominating everything else. Pascoe was telegraphing like crazy that the public official he most wanted to go after next was incumbent Alan Wilson. Todd Atwater decided to give up his House seat (now being sought by Paula Rawl Calhoon, whose ad you see at right) to challenge Wilson against that background. But with the Pascoe investigation in suspended animation recently, Wilson has been able to run a pretty conventional incumbent re-election campaign, stressing positives in his record rather than going on the defensive. Does today’s development change that dynamic?
  • What exactly did Courson plead guilty to doing? According to John, he had been charged with “misconduct in office, criminal conspiracy and converting campaign money to his personal use by taking kickbacks.” But the report says he has owned up to one count of “misconduct in office.” Since the converting campaign money to his personal use part was a separate charge, does that mean that is dropped? So what has he pled guilty to?
  • If the investigation is “ongoing,” who might be targeted that we don’t even know about? No one who knew Courson would have expected his name to come up (of course Doug knew, something that I type just to save Doug the trouble), so anybody could be a target.
  • Who will be running for Courson’s seat? I know of one person who’s highly likely to run, whom I won’t name until I get confirmation. But beyond the who, exactly how does this unfold? I assume there will be a special election, but does it occur before the election we’re having anyway this year? That Senate district has already gone a full session without representation, so what would be the hurry now, with the General Assembly practically done for the year?

Those are my first thoughts. Others will no doubt occur to me.

31 thoughts on “John Courson resigns seat, pleads guilty. So NOW what?

    1. Doug Ross

      While you try to spin this as a tragedy, the fact that he was taking money for six years indicates a pattern of behavior that rejects that characterization. The crime he was indicted for and convicted of took planning and forethought. That’s not what a “good guy” does. The easiest thing in the world to do is NOT steal money.

      Let’s see just how much evidence he provides on the larger Quinn case. That’s where he can prove how sorry he is for his crime.

      I’m wondering if he retains his pension and benefits. I would hope not.

      1. Doug Ross

        ” State Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield
        “This is a sad day for South Carolina and for the South Carolina Senate. Sen John Courson is one of the best human beings ever to serve, and yet his mistakes have allowed a cloud to form over our body. ”

        They weren’t mistakes. They were intentional actions to funnel money from his campaign account back into his personal account. One time is a mistake. Six years of activity is a character flaw.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          WHAT weren’t mistakes? Explain to me what he did. What did he plead to? As I’ve explained a couple of times, I don’t know yet, and the guy covering this couldn’t tell me. Hopefully we’ll know before the day is out, but I certainly don’t know NOW…

          1. Doug Ross

            Did you not read this?

            “According to the indictment in the case and public statements by Pascoe in court, Courson paid Quinn’s Columbia firm a sizable political consulting fee on several occasions. Then, a few days later, the Quinn firm would write Courson a check for just under $10,000. Courson would take that check to a Bank of America branch where he had an account and cash it, leaving the bank with thousands of dollars in his pocket. In all, Courson paid the Quinn firm $247,829 from 2006 to 2012. Then, the firm paid Courson $132,802 “though multiple transactions,” according to the indictment. Exactly what Courson did with that money — or whether he paid taxes on it — is unknown. By getting a check from the Quinn firm for less than $10,000, Pascoe has said, Courson avoided a law that requires banks to report all transactions of more than $10,000 to federal law enforcement authorities.”

            Is that not enough for you? They have specific dollar amounts combined with the suspicious checks. Surely an innocent man could explain that with some basic financial statements.

            I repeat – this was an ongoing effort over the course of years. Not a mistake.

            1. Claus2

              How much do you think he’ll have to pay back and how much time will he serve? I’m guessing not one dime and his confinement will be limited to house arrest where he’ll be free to leave the property between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and midnight.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Pay back what? Again, what did he plead guilty to doing?

                I expect we’ll know the answer to that soon, but right now we don’t…

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              Yeah, those were the charges. What matters now is what he pled to.

              The Post and Courier sheds some light on what that was, at least in Courson’s mind:

              He told The Post and Courier last week that he rejected a plea deal offered late last year that would have him resign from office. Courson, 73, has staunchly maintained his innocence since his indictment in March 2017 and vowed to take his case to a jury.

              But the senator changed his mind over the weekend after realizing he had violated the law in how he was getting money that belonged to him.

              Courson said after the hearing that he sent campaign contributions to his political consultant, Richard Quinn & Associates, who would give him a portion back to cover years of unpaid personal campaign reimbursements. State law does not allow candidates to do that. Plus, Courson failed to itemize the reimbursements on his disclosure reports.

              “What I did, as far as reimbursing campaign expenses, was not illegal,” he said after the hearing. “But the process I did it — I should have done it differently. I agree with that.”

              I’m not sure how the attorneys who made the deal would characterize it, but that’s the view of the central character.

              1. Doug Ross

                “, but that’s the view of the central character.”

                i.e. the spin. Did he explain why the payments were always under the $10K amount that would trigger review by the feds? Just coincidence I suppose.

                I’d love to know what his expenses were for campaigning for an office that was essentially his for life. His last election he won by 50 points against a Green Party candidate. If he spent any money on a campaign it was wasted.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Hey, hey, hey! He had an ad on this blog once, briefly! Ixnay on the asted-way language, OK?

                  Actually, I don’t know if he even knew he had an ad on my blog. That was sort of a roundabout ad. I think it was placed by the Senate GOP caucus or something, instead of his campaign. I’m not sure who it was, but the check cleared, so…

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    FYI, in case you’re curious about that…

                    I went back and checked the record. It was in the 2012 election, so two cycles ago for Courson.

                    There was an initial invoice and then an amended one. Apparently they decided they didn’t want it to run as long as they’d initially said. Initially, I’d billed them for the entire months of September and October, and then amended it to the last month of the election plus a few days (Oct. 3-Nov. 7). The shorter period was what they paid for, according to my payment records…

              2. Larry Slaughter

                I want to feel that Courson was an honorable man. But this just doesn’t wash: “. . .Richard Quinn & Associates, who would give him a portion back to cover years of unpaid personal campaign reimbursements.”

                The ethics rules for “legitimate” campaign expenses are so wide open, he could drive a Brinks truck through them. A trip to Vegas for a candidate training event? Legit. Dinner with donors, as long as you are discussing elections and not legislation, or so you say? Legit. He’d just need to document these expense reimbursement withdrawals.

                And those reimbursements would be tax free to him personally. Why would you instead take out money, in checks consistently for less than $10k, which you’d potentially have to show as income, and related expenses, to IRS and SCDOR ? I can think of no reason anyone would find the burden of documentation easier with IRS and SCDOR than with the SC Ethics rules.

                One thing you’d do to shield yourself from tax implications would be to not put the money in your bank account. One of the first things tax authorities would examine would be his bank accounts. So, you wash the money through Quinn and cash the checks instead of depositing them.

                So, to me, this looks like a pattern of tax evasion, on top of misuse of campaign funds.

                1. Larry Slaughter

                  I’ll also be i interested to see if Quinn or Courson become federal targets for structuring the cash withdrawals in sums less than $10,000 to avoid triggering the bank to report the transactions.

                  I don’t think anyone would expect SCDOR to have the cajones to audit R polititicians. And IRS audits would play out behind the scenes. They rarely rise to the level of criminal fraud. Penalties and interest plus taxes due could be extremely costly, but still out of the public view.

                  But, structuring? That stuff makes headlines.

                2. Doug Ross

                  “I don’t think anyone would expect SCDOR to have the cajones to audit R polititicians”

                  Exactly. Here’s a case where you have headlines about a person who was executing questionable transactions for large sums of cash. Why WOULDN’T someone at DOR at least do a cursory check of the tax returns to see if there was any record of that income?

                  No, instead, I get a bill for $46 for my SC taxes for some underpayment that was processed automatically with no explanation… and I’m not going to spend the time on what would likely be an exercise in government bureaucracy and incompetence to try and figure out why. But politicians who launder 150K don’t get a second look.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Y’all mean cojones.

                    A cajón is like a crate or a drawer or a bin or a tray.

                    Which is different.

                    Yep, I’m just as big a pedant in Spanish… at least, when it’s a word I know…

            3. Richard

              What is the typical sentence for someone who embezzles 132,802 from their employer? That’s what Courson should be sentenced to.

          2. Richard

            Hopefully the IRS and State Treasury will step in to check out to see if he paid taxes on these mistakes.

            Courson plead guilty because he knew this was an open and shut case of whatever the political term is for money laundering.

            I’m not concerned about the penalty phase, he’ll get a slap on the fingers like Richard Quinn got… something along the lines of a $100 fine and told not to do it again.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        I’m not “trying to spin” anything as anything. I’m describing what happened from a human perspective. And it IS a tragedy. Look up the classical definition of the word.

        I know that for you, a 73-year-old man who is widely liked and respected by people who know him (as opposed to those who judge oh-so-easily from a distance) pleading to something that ruins his name for ever is a wonderful thing (because he was a public official who had served for a long time, and they’re ALL CROOKS), others among us see it as a very sad story.

        And if you could get off your high horse for just a second, how about telling me exactly what he pled guilty to? I asked John Monk just now and he couldn’t tell me. He hopes to address that in a writethru of the story later.

        In other words, the guy covering this couldn’t tell me right away what Courson actually DID, but you know that he was “taking money for six years.”

        That could turn out to be the case. But I don’t know that yet. How is it that YOU know it?

        1. Doug Ross

          Why does it matter what he plead to? He did that to avoid being convicted of charges that would lead him to go to prison for an extended period of time. What he plead to and what he did are two completely different things. He traded a plea deal with the expectation that he will reveal more information about the Quinns. It happens all the time.

          The article has specific dollar amounts. How about you get off YOUR low horse and tell me whether those numbers are wrong. I’m pretty certain those numbers weren’t invented out of thin air.

          You want to minimize this into a smaller matter than it is because of your feelings for Courson. That’s your prerogative. I don’t know him so I can judge him on this and prior actions that don’t paint him as a saint.

          But, yeah, this is great for you to transfer your anger toward me… all I ever get is confirmation that politicians are more corrupt than any other profession. You have to keep trying to convince me otherwise despite the mounting evidence.

      3. Brad Warthen Post author

        Doug, it always seems to be about the person with you — finding out whom to blame, naming and shaming that person, and if possible punishing that person.

        One of many things that keep us from agreeing is that I don’t see things that way. I care about what happened, why it happened, and how it affects the wider world.

        I just gave a list of the things that this development brings to my mind, questions with wide-ranging effects on the world.

        But what you’re thinking about is,

        I’m wondering if he retains his pension and benefits. I would hope not.

        So you want to make sure that he is completely ruined by pleading guilty to actions that still remain unclear (but could be cleared up in subsequent reports)?

        That just… had not occurred to me to wonder about…

        1. Doug Ross

          Why would he be completely ruined? Is that why he has stayed in office, to collect a check?

          Your focus on individuals is only limited to the politicians you don’t like. .. just like me. Yours are libertarians, mine are crooks.

  1. Doug Ross

    I’m always fascinated by the people who claim to be 100% innocent over and over for extended periods of time and then plead guilty when they are faced with a trial. They delayed the trial as long as they could and tried all sorts of legal maneuvers to get the case dropped. Then when we’re all set to hear Courson defend himself, he cops a plea.

      1. Doug Ross

        Pascoe is playing nice now. It wasn’t Courson calling it a witch hunt, but in October, Courson’s lawyer tried to get the case dropped and according to the Post & Courier:

        “In her ruling, Mullen also rejected Parham’s motions to the dismiss charges against Courson. Parham had asserted misconduct in office is not indictable. Mullen did not mention a reference Parham made at the hearing to Pascoe’s Democratic Party affiliation – and the fact that the four legislators that the special prosecutor has indicted, so far, are all Republicans.”

        So a little whiff of “witch hunt” there…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Oh, I think she actually used the words “witch hunt” at one point.

          Which is what makes this interesting, that Pascoe’s “playing nice,” as you say, to this extent. Up to now, he has shown little interest in cutting anybody a break. This seems like a departure.

          Anyway, I’m very interested in seeing what happens NEXT. Courson was the last bit of business Pascoe had on his plate. So what’s NEXT, or is he done?

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    … in the meantime, does anyone have anything to say about any of the questions I’ve raised as to how this affects the rest of the world, such as the gubernatorial and attorney general races?

    I thought those were fairly important questions. I was actually planning on writing about those things today BEFORE the Courson plea; that just development made all of them seem more urgent.\

    I was talking with someone last night, after I was on Cynthia Hardy’s radio show, about all these things, and I’m more puzzled than ever about how the ongoing probe (assuming it IS “ongoing”) affects these rather major elections we’re holding.

    Because up to now, the effect had been minimal, given that the probe seemed dormant. But even when it WAS dormant, it was a little odd…

  3. Mark Stewart

    I don’t know Courson; everyone I do respects him. But come on; what he was doing was just outright crooked, and he ought to have known that from day one (whenever that was). Sadly, the good ‘ol boy in him got the better of the Marine he once was.

    Does this conviction now give Pascoe a reason to return to the Quinns? I guess that’s the biggest question I have. The other thing apparent from this whole mess is that Alan Wilson has absolutely no business being Attorney General – or holding any other elected office for that matter. That’s crystal clear.

  4. Bart

    The acceptance of checks under $10,000 to avoid attention from the IRS has been a well known fact for decades. Even I have know any banking transaction $10k or over is immediately brought to the attention of the IRS and it is a very safe presumption that Courson was well aware of the law when he made arrangements for the first “repayment” check. This was not a one time transaction, it went on for years. A one time can be explained away but after so many years, no. Ask Ard from Florence about reimbursement from campaign funds he donated out of his own money. He lost the Lt. Governor’s seat because he didn’t know the rules. Ard could possibly be excused for ignorance but Courson, not likely.

      1. Bart

        My mistake, thanks for the correction. Forgot it was cash that had to be reported. The same rule applies if buying travelers, cashiers, or certified checks for over $10k in cash.

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