COLUMBIA, S.C. —The State Grand Jury has indicted Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, on charges of misconduct in office and using campaign money for personal use. Because of the indictment, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant suspended Sen. Courson Friday.
The indictments come as part of First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe’s investigation into possible corruption at the South Carolina Statehouse. The probe led to former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleading guilty in 2014 to improperly using campaign money to reimburse himself for personal expenses. Last December, Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, was indicted on 30 charges of misconduct in office for allegedly accepting more than $1 million from groups that had bills pending at the Statehouse.
Sen. Courson has served in the state Senate since 1985. He was the president pro tempore of the body from 2012 to 2014, but stepped down from that position to avoid becoming lieutenant governor when Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell resigned to become president of the College of Charleston. Until his suspension, he was chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Courson issued a written statement saying, “These allegations are completely false. I have done nothing wrong. I value my integrity and have spent all my years as a public servant embracing the highest standards of ethical conduct. I believe the most important things one leaves behind in this life are one’s children and one’s reputation. While it is unfortunate to be charged by a partisan Democrat under questionable motives and authority, I have no doubt that I will be cleared and exonerated of these accusations.”
John Crangle, former state director of the government watchdog group Common Cause, said Friday, “He was the last person I thought who would do anything wrong. I still hope that he will be acquitted. I hope that the charges are not true.”
Crangle has written a book about Operation Lost Trust, the FBI’s probe into Statehouse corruption in the early 1990s. He says the three indictments in the current investigation stem from the big increase in the size of political campaign accounts that politicians accumulate. He says they raise a lot of money and then often have non-competitive races, so they end up having to spend very little of the money they’ve collected. “So they have these huge pots of unused money and that is like a cookie jar to a little three-year-old kid; they want to get their hands in it,” he says. “Until you can get control over the excessive accumulations of unused political money and until you can get a monitoring system to monitor the use of the money, you’re going to have a repetition of this.”
He has an idea for how to fix it: require candidates to give unused campaign money to the state’s general fund. That way, they wouldn’t have a financial advantage over challengers in the next election and there would be no temptation to improperly use the campaign funds. Ten percent of the money that went into the general fund would be used to set up a special office to make sure campaign donations are legal and that candidate spending is proper.
The indictment says that Courson paid money to political consultant Richard Quinn & Associates, almost $248,000 over several years, and that the firm then paid Courson almost $133,000.