SC justices mull Wilson investigation of Harrell

Associated PressJune 24, 2014 

  • Who’s who in the Harrell case

    A look at the main players in the ongoing battle over ethics-violation allegations against one of South Carolina’s most powerful politicians.

    Bobby Harrell House speaker since 2005. The allegations against the Charleston Republican include using his office for personal gain by misappropriating campaign money and to aid one of his businesses. Says the charges are politically motivated. Harrell’s campaign and a political group with ties to the speaker gave Attorney General Alan Wilson’s campaign $7,000, which have been returned.

    Alan Wilson S.C. Attorney General since 2011. Lexington Republican running for re-election this year. Son of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale. Received S.C. Policy Council president Ashley Landess’ complaints about Harrell. Asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate. Sent the case to the State Grand Jury after a 10-month SLED probe. Accused by Harrell’s camp of trying to bully the speaker into passage of a unit to investigate public corruption, an allegation that Wilson denies.

    Ashley Landess President of S.C. Policy Council, a libertarian think tank that works aggressively for lower spending and government reform. Took complaints about Harrell to Wilson because she did not think the House Ethics Committee would be impartial. Harrell says Landess is upset with him for not reappointing her to the S.C. Lottery Commission, which Landess denies.

    Casey Manning S.C. Circuit Court judge. First African-American on the University of South Carolina basketball team. Signed petition from Wilson and SLED chief Mark Keel to impanel the State Grand Jury to investigate the allegations against Harrell. Ruled a few months later, however, that the investigation must stop because Wilson did not have criminal violations against the speaker. Referred the case to the House Ethics Committee. Wilson appealed his ruling Tuesday to the S.C. Supreme Court. A decision is pending.

    The (Columbia) State

— 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.

It’s 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.

Harrell’s attorney’s 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 Wilson’s office. On Tuesday, Harrell’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t.

Prosecutors defended Wilson’s decision to pursue an indictment against Harrell, saying previous cases show that referrals from legislative ethics panels aren’t mandatory.

“The grand jury is there to determine if there’s probable cause in the first place,” Waters said, adding that courts should “be very reluctant and careful” to interfere in such a panel’s work.

Chief Justice Jean Toal criticized prosecutors for talking publicly about their inquiry, saying Wilson’s decision to go public with his intention to pursue a state grand jury indictment was the first such case she’d 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 they’ve seen, the attorney general was simply trying to convict me in the court of public opinion because he can’t 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 state’s high court ruled Wilson could continue his investigation while his appeal is pending.

The Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service