COLUMBIA — One of South Carolina's longest-serving senators has been indicted on ethics charges tied to veteran Republican powerbroker Richard Quinn.
Solicitor David Pascoe, the prosecutor investigating Statehouse corruption, announced Friday that a state grand jury indicted Republican Sen. John Courson of Columbia on misconduct in office and using campaign donations for personal expenses. All three charges are tied to Courson's payments to Quinn's political consulting firm.
Citing his ongoing investigation, Pascoe declined to comment further.
Courson said in a statement he has "no doubt" he will be exonerated, calling Pascoe a "partisan Democrat under questionable motives."
"This is a political, partisan witch hunt," said his attorney, Rose Mary Parham, a former prosecutor. "Courson is a man of unquestionable integrity who would never use his public office for personal gain in any way."
A bond hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant suspended Courson Friday afternoon pending the case's resolution.
Courson, a 72-year-old Marine veteran, was first elected in 1984 and became chairman of the Senate Education Committee in 2005. He was the Senate's top leader from March 2012 to June 2014.
The indictments allege Courson gave Quinn's firm nearly $248,000 and received back nearly $133,000 for personal use. They say the payments were made between December 2006 and December 2012.
Quinn said the allegations are false but declined to say more. The indictments represent the first time the GOP strategist has been publicly named in court documents during Pascoe's investigation into corruption charges at the Statehouse. Quinn founded his firm in 1978, when just 1 percent of South Carolina's legislators were Republican, and helped build a GOP majority.
Unlike other senators who took leadership roles after the Senate flipped to GOP control in 2000, Courson began his political career as a Republican. He frequently references his work for Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond — early Quinn clients.
The indictments stunned legislators and political observers. In 2013, the citizen watchdog group Common Cause awarded Courson for "outstanding career leadership in promoting ethics reform."
"Sen. Courson is one of the most popular and well-respected members of the Senate, and he has provided valuable leadership on many difficult issues," said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. "But make no mistake — these are serious allegations.... It is important that these charges be investigated thoroughly."
Courson is the second lawmaker indicted in the probe since former House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance charges in 2014 and was forced to resign as part of his plea deal.
Charleston Rep. Jim Merrill, a GOP consultant, was indicted in December on 30 misconduct and ethics charges. Merrill, House majority leader from 2004 to 2008, is accused of illegally profiting from his position. He too is suspended.
Attorney General Alan Wilson handed the Harrell case to Pascoe in 2014, citing a conflict, but it's been less than a year since the state Supreme Court gave Pascoe permission to continue. Wilson, a Republican, tried to fire Pascoe, a Democrat, last March, saying he lacked the authority to open a state grand jury to investigate beyond Harrell. The justices disagreed.
Wilson is also a Quinn client.
"As the indictments pile up, it is becoming abundantly clear that South Carolina Republicans have been only looking out for themselves, not for regular South Carolinians," said Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison. "Only Democrats can drain the Statehouse swamp."
In the Republican-dominated state, Courson represents parts of a county that's otherwise a Democratic stronghold. He is one of just three Republicans among 17 legislators representing Richland County. He was re-elected last November with 75 percent of the vote.
Courson's Senate colleagues elected him their leader in 2012, after then-Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell reluctantly resigned to become lieutenant governor. McConnell called it his constitutional duty to succeed Ken Ard, who had resigned and pleaded guilty to campaign violations in a case Wilson prosecuted.
But when then-Lt. Gov. McConnell resigned in June 2014 to become president of the College of Charleston, Courson resigned his powerful leadership post in order to sidestep an office largely seen as ceremonial and stay in the Senate.