COLUMBIA — A lower court judge was right to halt an investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell because state prosecutors had presented no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, attorneys for the powerful Charleston Republican argued before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.
In defense of their case, prosecutors said the fact that Attorney General Alan Wilson had asked state police to investigate the speaker, coupled with his subsequent decision to present those findings to a state grand jury, indicate the presence of more than just civil ethics allegations against Harrell.
Its now up to the high court to consider if a circuit judge was right earlier this year to order Wilson to halt his investigation, citing a lack of criminal evidence against Harrell and also ruling that a legislative panel must first hear charges against legislators.
Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council a libertarian-leaning, pro-limited-government think tank initially accused Harrell of using his powerful position for personal benefit, including getting a permit for his pharmaceutical business and appointing his brother to a judicial-candidate screening committee.
Landess took her allegations to Wilson, who asked state police to investigate the allegations and ultimately began making his case before the state grand jury.
Harrells attorneys challenged that process in court, first arguing that Wilson should be recused from the case. In May, Circuit court Judge Casey Manning ordered Wilson to stop his investigation altogether, ruling that he saw no criminal evidence. Manning also ruled that legislative ethics panels in the House and Senate must first deal with allegations against state lawmakers before prosecutors can be involved.
The House Ethics Committee is only empowered to investigate civil allegations and must refer potentially criminal cases to Wilsons office. On Tuesday, Harrells attorney, Bobby Stepp, argued that Wilson had inappropriately bypassed the legislative ethics panel by taking the case on himself. He also noted that the fact a grand jury was empaneled did not mean there was evidence of criminal activity.
The complaint in this case should have been taken to the House Ethics Committee, Stepp said. We dont have any evidence in this case that the grand jury was acting with respect to information about public corruption.
State grand jury proceedings are secret by law, but Stepp said Wilson could have privately presented evidence to Manning, but didnt.
Prosecutors defended Wilsons decision to pursue an indictment against Harrell, saying previous cases show that referrals from legislative ethics panels arent mandatory.
The grand jury is there to determine if theres probable cause in the first place, Waters said, adding that courts should be very reluctant and careful to interfere in such a panels work.
Chief Justice Jean Toal criticized prosecutors for talking publicly about their inquiry, saying Wilsons decision to go public with his intention to pursue a state grand jury indictment was the first such case shed ever heard.
I find it curious that we know all that, Toal said. The whole behavior here has been very strange to me.
Harrell, House speaker since 2005, has characterized the allegations and investigation as politically motivated, sentiments he reiterated after court.
The justices also made it clear to us that, from what theyve seen, the attorney general was simply trying to convict me in the court of public opinion because he cant seem to get it done in the courtroom, like you should do it, Harrell said.
The justices will issue their ruling later. A month ago, the states high court ruled Wilson could continue his investigation while his appeal is pending.