CONVICTED FORMER Rep. Rick Quinn’s guilty plea to a minor reporting violation in return for having more significant charges dropped against himself and his father leaves a lot of questions about what is and isn’t prohibited by South Carolina’s ethics law. The Legislature needs to answer those questions this year.
A lot of the allegations against Mr. Quinn and his father involve disputes of fact that appear to be unique to the Quinns. As far as I know, we’ve never had another legislator who ran a business out of the same building as his high-powered political consultant father and that might have actually belonged to his father. So there’s not a lot the Legislature can do about the most explosive allegations: that Mr. Quinn acted as a lobbyist and used his elected position to surreptitiously make millions of dollars for his family business, both clearly illegal. (All he admitted to in his plea agreement was failing to report that USC had rented some property from him one year.)
But Mr. Quinn admitted to doing a lot of things that he insists were perfectly legal. The plea agreement unfortunately means we didn’t get a court ruling on whether it’s legal for legislators to sell their professional services to their own campaigns, to legislative caucuses or to other legislators, or whether the House and Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses have to abide by the same campaign finance laws as candidates and other political organizations.
Legislators have always believed that the answer to the first question is “yes,” and the second question is, for the most part, “no.” The House Ethics Committee and the attorney general’s office agree with those answers, but Solicitor David Pascoe told the court at Mr. Quinn’s sentencing hearing that he disagrees. Mr. Pascoe might have convinced a jury to agree with his interpretation of those laws, but he didn’t get a chance to try, so the law is … well, we can’t say for sure.
If legislators want to display a little sincerity when they tut-tut about Mr. Quinn’s conduct, they should pass laws to make it clear that the things he was accused of doing are indeed prohibited. So far, though, no one has offered bills to do that.
The more significant question raised by the investigation into Richard Quinn and Associates is where the line is between legislative consulting, which is unregulated, and legislative lobbying, which has to be reported to the State Ethics Commission and triggers restrictions on the relationship between the lobbyist and legislators and between the lobbied-for and legislators.
At first glance the line seems clear: A lobbyist is someone who is paid by a client to communicate directly with a legislator on behalf of that client. But did Mr. Quinn do that when he encouraged legislators to support bills that would help his business clients, as Mr. Pascoe alleges? Or was he actually looking out for the interest of lawmakers who were paying him to provide advice to help them get re-elected? The effect would be the same, but providing paid political advice to legislative clients would be legal.
I doubt there are many other political consultants who double as consultants for businesses that need legislative favors — and certainly none with such extensive client lists as Mr. Quinn. But we’ve known for years that special interests hide a lot of what acts like lobbying by calling it consulting or other professional services.
A bill prefiled by freshman Sen. William Timmons, S.765, would define a lobbyist as anyone who is hired to influence legislation through direct or indirect communication with legislators. That would make a consultant’s motivation irrelevant, but it wouldn’t address the larger problem, because it leaves intact the most-exploited exemption: You’re not a lobbyist, the law says, if you perform “professional services in drafting legislation or in advising and rendering opinions to clients as to the construction and effect of proposed or pending legislation.”
Eliminate that exemption, or amend it to make clear that the lawyer becomes a lobbyist once he starts communicating with legislators about what he drafted, and Mr. Timmons’ bill would not only address the most troubling thing about the senior Mr. Quinn’s stable of clients; it also would close one of the biggest loopholes in our lobbying law.
Of course, a law is only as good as its enforcement, and that takes us right back to where we were before the Quinn investigation.
Watchdogs still need the tools to spot minor wrongdoing before it turns into major wrongdoing, and no one has proposed a better idea than requiring the Ethics Commission to conduct random audits of legislators’ campaign reports, and giving it the staff to accomplish this.
And we need tougher penalties for violating the law — not just higher fines and prison sentences but also changes to hit wayward lawmakers where it hurts: prohibiting them from seeking re-election if they don’t pay any ethics fines and, if they commit more serious violations, halting their health insurance (I’m not sure we could get away with seizing their retirement benefits) and making them pay for special elections to fill their seats.
Make these changes, and dishonest legislators would be a lot more likely to worry about getting caught if they skirt the law. And honest legislators who accidentally cross a line would be a lot more likely to get discovered before they graduate to major crimes.