The South Carolina Senate’s longest-serving Republican has stepped down from office after pleading guilty Monday to a misconduct in office charge.
State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, entered the plea for common law misconduct in a Columbia courtroom. It was a somewhat surprising move after the 73-year-old indicated for more than a year he would fight the charges against him. Monday would have been the start of his trial. He has been suspended from office since his March 2017 indictment.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe agreed to drop statutory misconduct in office and criminal conspiracy charges in exchange for the plea and Courson’s willingness to cooperate with an ongoing Statehouse corruption probe. Courson is the fourth lawmaker to be convicted in the probe and the only senator.
“My service of thirty-four years to the people of District 20 in the South Carolina Senate has been a tremendous personal honor,” Courson wrote in his resignation letter. “Unfortunately, I have let them down by my actions and because of that I must resign.”
Courson was the third-most senior Republican in the state Senate, but has consistently served as a Republican since his 1985 election. The two current Republicans who have been in office longer (State Sens. Hugh Leatherman and Harvey Peeler) switched parties since then. He served as the Senate President pro tempore from 2012 until 2014.
He faces up to 10 years in prison but will almost certainly receive much less because he has no previous criminal record and agreed to cooperate with the probe. Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen agreed to delay the sentencing until prosecutors no longer need his help.
Courson was indicted as part of the probe into prominent Republican consultant Richard Quinn and the lawmakers his firm represented. Pascoe accused Courson of arranging for much of his campaign donations to go through Quinn’s firm. The business then redirected many of those payments back to the senator’s personal accounts. Courson received nearly $133,000 in such payments from 2006 until 2012, according to an initial indictment.
State law prohibits political candidates from using campaign funds for personal non-campaign expenses.
He is now the fourth current or former legislator to be convicted in the probe. Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, pleaded guilty to six campaign finance counts in 2014 and former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, admitted to not reporting $1.3 million in payments to his business from groups with interests before the House.
The investigation then switched to the Quinns. Since then, Quinn’s son Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, pleaded guilty to statutory misconduct and was sentenced in February to 500 hours community service and a $1,000 fine. Charges were dropped against the elder Quinn, but his consulting operation has since crumbled and his firm was fined for failing to register as a lobbying group.
Two other former GOP lawmakers still face charges in the case. Former State Reps. Jim Harrison, R-Columbia, and Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach, have been indicted for not reporting payments they received from Quinn’s firm while voting on issues involving the firm’s clients.