SC attorney general’s gamble: Stakes are high in grand jury investigation of House speaker

abeam@thestate.comJanuary 18, 2014 

  • Investigating politicians

    Attorney General Alan Wilson has handled several investigations of politicians during his first term, including:

    Lt. Gov. Ken Ard

    Ard was busted for funneling his own money through fake donors to his campaign, making it look like the Florence Republican had more financial support than he really did. The grand jury investigation took more than a year, but when it was over – Ard resigned, was indicted and sentenced –all on the same day.

    State Rep. Kris Crawford

    The Republican lawmaker from Florence was accused of failing to pay his state taxes on time. After his first trial resulted in a hung jury, Wilson’s office tried Crawford a second time – winning a guilty verdict on four misdemeanor charges. Crawford, who remains a state representative, was fined $10,000.

    State Sen. Robert Ford

    The former Democratic state senator from Charleston was accused of using his campaign money for personal expenses, including paying a car loan and buying items at an adult store. Ford resigned during a Senate Ethics Committee hearing. The committee referred the case to Wilson, who referred it to SLED. Its investigation is ongoing.

    House Speaker Bobby Harrell

    The Charleston Republican is accused of using campaign money for personal expenses, failing to document his campaign expenses properly and appointing his brother to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. Last week, Wilson referred the allegations to the State Grand Jury.

    State Treasurer Curtis Loftis

    The Retirement System Investment Commission asked Wilson to look into whether Loftis, a Lexington Republican, was involved in a “pay to play” scheme at the state’s $26 billion retirement fund. Wilson referred the matter to SLED, which investigated and gave a report to Wilson. Wilson’s office declined to prosecute, saying, “There was no activity which warrants action by this office.”

    State Rep. Harold Mitchell

    Wilson’s office prosecuted the Democratic lawmaker from Spartanburg on charges he did not pay his state income taxes on time. Mitchell pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended upon the payment of all of his outstanding taxes – $5,989.30 – plus the cost of the prosecution. He is still in the Legislature.

    Reynolds Williams

    The Pee Dee chairman of the Retirement System Investment Commission was accused of using his influence to steer lucrative contracts to his law firm. Wilson again asked SLED to investigate and, based on its report, declined to prosecute.

    The Harrell case

    A complaint, filed by S.C. Policy Council president Ashley Landess, alleged Harrell may have violated S.C. law by:

    Using his office “for his own financial benefit,” violating S.C. code 8-13-700. This allegation relates to Harrell allegedly lobbying a state agency, via a letter sent on his letterhead as House speaker, on behalf of one of his businesses.

    Using campaign funds for personal purposes, violating S.C. code 8-13-1348. This allegation relates to allegations that Harrell improperly used campaign money to reimburse his cost of operating his private plane.

    Appointing his brother to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, violating S.C. code 8-13-750.

    Failing to document his expenditures, violating S.C. code 8-13-1302. This allegation also relates to Harrell’s use of his private plane.

    Not adequately itemizing reimbursements to himself from his campaign account, violating S.C. code 8-13-1360. This allegation also relates to Harrell’s use of his private plane.

    The process

    The case is now before the State Grand Jury. It takes a vote of 12 of the 18 members to return an indictment.

    To bring a matter before the State Grand Jury, the attorney general and the chief of SLED must “consider it necessary.” They also must believe that “normal investigative or prosecutorial procedures are not adequate” to complete the investigation, state law says.

    The attorney general sends a written petition to a chief administrative judge of a Circuit Court to activate the jury.

    The petition, signed by both the attorney general and the SLED chief, “must allege the type of offenses” the Grand Jury will investigate, according to state law.

— One of the biggest cases of Henry McMaster’s career as S.C. attorney general involved the prosecution of six people for investment fraud, including a popular former lieutenant governor and a big-time GOP donor, both from the Upstate.

McMaster won six convictions, all upheld on appeal. But when McMaster later ran for the Republican nomination for governor, aides say, the Carolinas Investors cases cost him as much as $300,000 in campaign contributions in the Upstate.

"If anything hurt Henry McMaster, it was the prosecution of Earle Morris," veteran GOP political consultant Warren Tompkins of Columbia said last week, referring to the late lieutenant governor from Pickens County.

Now comes Alan Wilson, the 40-year-old GOP attorney general from Lexington who succeeded McMaster.

In his first term, Wilson has already prosecuted or instigated investigations of at least seven public officials, including a sitting lieutenant governor – Ken Ard, who resigned in 2012. Last week, Wilson shook up S.C. politics again by referring ethics allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell to the State Grand Jury.

While Ard’s post was largely ceremonial. Republican Harrell is powerful.

His Charleston political base is among the state’s wealthiest areas, allowing the speaker to raise $555,000 for a 2012 election that he won with 74 percent of the vote. A political action committee that Harrell started, but is no longer associated with, the Palmetto Leadership Council, raised another $1.6 million for the 2012 elections. It donated to every nearly Republican lawmaker in the state – and Wilson.

Wilson widely is seen as a potential candidate for governor in 2018 or some other statewide seat. But if McMaster’s prosecution of a lesser former politician cost him $300,000, what could the investigation of Harrell cost Wilson?

"The process is fraught with peril for all involved," Tompkins said.

‘More than just disappointing’

Harrell – who as speaker controls the agenda of the House of Representatives, including Wilson’s budget – already is putting pressure on Wilson.

Wilson told the media about the Grand Jury investigation of Harrell on Monday – the day before lawmakers and journalists descended upon the State House for the start of the 2014 legislative session.

"I fully expected any day now there would be a release form the AG’s office saying the investigation was over and there was no factual reason to pursue it any further," Harrell told a press conference Tuesday. "To have that expectation and then get blindsided by the events of yesterday is more than just disappointing.

"I also don’t believe it is a coincidence that this release was made on the eve of the legislative session. I believe it was intended to inflict political damage to me."

Harrell has called the allegations, based on a complaint filed by libertarian S.C. Policy Council president Ashley Landess, a "personal vendetta." Asked if he thought Wilson had a personal vendetta against him, Harrell said, "You’ll have to ask the attorney general."

Wilson, son of 2nd District U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, declined to be interviewed for this story.

But Wilson has been distancing himself from fellow Republican Harrell.

Last year, after Wilson referred the allegations against Harrell to SLED for investigation, the attorney general returned $7,000 in campaign contributions connected to Harrell.

‘Uncharted territory’

This is not Wilson’s first politically -charged case.

In 2012, he prosecuted former Lt. Gov. Ard on ethics charges. Ard’s resignation led to longtime Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston – then considered the most powerful man in state government – giving up his Senate seat for the less consequential duties of lieutenant governor.

In 2012 and 2013, Wilson referred to SLED allegations of ethics violations against state Treasurer Curtis Loftis and Retirement Investment Commission chairman Reynolds Williams. But, after receiving SLED’s investigative reports, Wilson declined to prosecute either.

Last year, Wilson referred to SLED allegations of ethics violations involving former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston. Ford resigned from the Senate last spring. Wilson’s office also has overseen the trial and convictions of two state representatives on charges of failing to pay their state taxes on time.

But the allegations against Harrell are different.

"This is uncharted territory here," said Democratic political consultant Lachlan McIntosh, who is based in Charleston and has run several Lowcountry campaigns. "He went after Ken Ard, but nobody really cared because Ken Ard was not a very important figure.

"But he’s going after a powerful person who has powerful allies, and it will be interesting to see what happens," McIntosh said. "Theoretically, it shouldn’t hurt him for doing his job. But South Carolina is a different animal."

‘You have to do your job’

McMaster, who served two terms as attorney general before losing in the Republican primary for governor, shrugged off the political consequences of his Carolina Investors trial.

When he was the U.S. attorney for South Carolina, McMaster oversaw "Operation Jackpot," the marijuana smuggling sting that led to charges against more than 100 people on drug charges.

"We had 133 defendants, I think, and a lot of them were friends I had in childhood as well as in college," he said. "You just can’t worry about that stuff. You have to do your job."

Allies say Wilson already has proven he ignores politics in doing his job as the state’s top prosecutor.

Wilson’s closest political adviser,– Richard Quinn of Columbia, – said he was angry with Wilson in 2012 when he did not give him advance warning about Ard’s indictment.

Quinn said he would have liked to have had more time to consult with another political client – then-Senate President Pro Tempore McConnell – about whether he should become lieutenant governor or resign as Senate president pro tempore to save his state Senate seat.

"A lot of other public people I have known are usually willing to trust their political advisers advisors and share information that has to do with the decision making of their office in order to get political advice," Quinn said.

"He doesn’t do that," Quinn said of Wilson. "I think that will turn out to be an asset for him in the long run because people want their elected officials to conduct their duties honorably ... rather than always trying to put a wet finger to the wind."

If that is how voters and donors think of Wilson after the Harrell investigation, he could emerge as a strong candidate in the future, according to GOP consultant Wesley Donehue.

"It gets him on the front page of every newspaper," Donehue said of the Harrell investigation. Whether right or wrong, Donehue said, it shows that Wilson is not afraid “to go after the most powerful man in South Carolina.

"I just don’t see any way this hurts Alan Wilson."

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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