By Tim Smith
COLUMBIA – State Sen. John Courson pleaded guilty to misconduct in office charges this week as a Statehouse corruption probe now in its fifth year remains ongoing.
Republican challengers to Gov. Henry McMaster reminded voters Tuesday evening in the GOP’s final debate before next week’s primary that a central character in the probe, Richard Quinn, is a political consultant who until this year also worked for the governor’s campaigns.
Catherine Templeton, who said she was fired from her job at the State Ports Authority after raising concerns over a marketing contract with Quinn, said she has concerns the investigation will ensnare McMaster.
“My concern is whether our current governor is a target of that investigation or will be a target of that investigation,” she said. “If we hire him on June 12 (with election in the primary) and then he gets indicted, we’re handing our state over to the liberals.”
John Warren of Greenville, a Marine veteran, said the Statehouse needs more Marine values.
“It’s never going to happen if we have a governor who employs the biggest criminal in our state for the past 30 years,” he said. “We’ve got to have an outsider, a conservative, someone who is going to fight for the taxpayer for a change to go to Columbia and fight this corruption, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant said he had written an anti-racketeering bill and that it was an “insult to the taxpayers of the state” when Quinn’s son was sentenced to only a $1,000 fine for selling his vote.
“Richard Quinn has been called the Godfather,” Bryant said. “And as Ms. Templeton said, Gov. McMaster is one of his oldest clients. And the first order of business in the governor’s mansion was to have the Godfather come visit for a family meeting.”
McMaster, the state’s former attorney general and a former U.S. attorney, attempted to deflect his rivals’ accusations and insinuations as politics.
“I think we have to stick to the truth,” McMaster said. “The only investigations I have been involved in are the ones I was working myself, first as U.S. attorney.”
McMaster added that he was the only one on the stage at the University of South Carolina’s Drayton Hall who has been involved with law and order.
Then he turned on Templeton.
“This idea that there is corruption is true,” he said. “I’ll give you an example of it. Mr. Warren mentioned these no-bid contracts. Ms. Templeton had three.”
Templeton was director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and signed a no-bid contract as a consultant when she left in 2015. She also worked as a consultant for the state Department of Revenue.
Templeton responded by saying the contracts were disclosed because they were public record, and she said previous DHEC directors also have received consulting contracts when they left.
“Every dollar I have ever made from the state of South Carolina or otherwise has been a public record and always has been,” she said.
Later, McMaster said that Templeton had asked him to be his running mate, a request he said he declined.
“I said I couldn’t do that,” McMaster said. “As you know, I’ve selected Pamela Evette. So then we tried to get her something in the White House, something in the administration somewhere, and that didn’t work out, so here we are today.”
Templeton did not directly answer that assertion at the debate, saying only that McMaster’s timeline was “way off” because he hadn’t appointed his running mate until “way after” she visited McMaster. Evette was picked by McMaster in November 2017.
R.J. May, Templeton’s campaign manager, said after the debate that Templeton did not ask McMaster to be his running mate.
In response to the issue, McMaster’s campaign spokeswoman released texts between the governor and Templeton which appeared to show Templeton asking the governor in November 2016 if he had time so they “could talk quietly.”
The texts also show Templeton texting on Dec. 1 thanking McMaster for seeing her and then asking if he would support her being the U.S. secretary of labor, saying President Donald Trump’s transition team had contacted her.
McMaster’s campaign later released past comments from leaders, including former Gov. Nikki Haley, praising McMaster’s integrity and ethics.
Bruce Ransom, a Clemson University political science professor, said he thinks it is the right political strategy for Templeton and Warren to throw stones at McMaster as a representative of the Statehouse culture they are challenging.
“It’s a matter of what are the degrees of separation,” he said, referring to the distance between McMaster and the Richard Quinn firm at the heart of the Statehouse corruption investigation.
Ransom said it seems like some Republican candidates are taking more advantage of the situation in challenging incumbents over ethics than Democrats are.
“It seems to me if you are a weak minority party you would make more hay out of this than has been made thus far,” he said. “It seems like the hay that is being thrown down is coming from within the Republican party.”
Warren and Templeton also scrapped on stage, after Warren said he was being attacked by ads because he was rising in the polls.
“Their support is crumbling like our roads and bridges,” he said of his attackers.
Warren accused Templeton of flip-flopping on being pro-life. Templeton accused Warren of changing his position on what is called personhood, the proposal to grant rights to the unborn at conception, which would outlaw abortion, and of not supporting a measure concerning noise suppressors for guns.
Warren then accused Templeton of being a “triple threat to conservatives,” saying she had voted for “pro-choice, pro-abortion” Sen. Vincent Sheheen, failed to vote in the GOP presidential primary in 2012 and gave money to pro-abortion Democrats.
Warren also jabbed at McMaster over roads Tuesday. When the governor talked about repairs to Charleston’s Wando River bridge recently being completed ahead of schedule, Warren shot back, “Fixing one bridge, that’s what you brag about?”
Warren said he wants bring accountability to the state Department of Transportation by abolishing its board because “it serves no purpose,” and he said he wants to roll the State Infrastructure Bank into the DOT.
Heading into Tuesday’s debate, a Target Insyght poll released over the weekend had McMaster in the lead with 37 percent, followed by Templeton at 25 percent and Warren at 20 percent. Bryant had 5 percent in the poll and McGill about 1 percent.
Warren released a poll Tuesday morning that placed him in second place. The poll showed McMaster with 33 percent, Warren with 19 percent and Templeton with 17 percent.