The unanimous decision by the S.C. Supreme Court that state Attorney General Alan Wilson was justified in investigating House Speaker Bobby Harrell is reassuring. A ruling against Wilson might have dangerously limited the authority of his office.
The court was examining a ruling by Cirtuit Judge Casey Manning, who said Wilson hadn’t shown any criminal evidence against Harrell. Perhaps more importantly, he also ruled that legislative ethics panels – which are empowered only to investigate civil allegations – must first deal with allegations against state lawmakers before prosecutors can be involved.
The high court said Manning was wrong on both counts. Regarding criminal evidence, justices apparently were persuaded by the assertion of prosecutors that Wilson had asked state police to investigate the speaker and, coupled with his decision to present those findings to a state grand jury, that indicated the presence of more than just civil ethics allegations against Harrell.
Regarding Wilson’s right to conduct his investigation before legislative ethics panels had dealt with allegations against Harrell, justices ruled that Wilson’s prosecutorial power is separate from the legislative ethics process.
“The House Ethics Committee’s concurrent civil regulatory authority does not affect the attorney general’s authority to initiate a criminal investigation in any way, whether or not there is a referral, or even a pending House investigation,” the court wrote.
It verges on the absurd to assume that the state’s top prosecutor would be constrained from launching a criminal investigation against a member of the Legislature until he gets the go-ahead from the House or Senate Ethics Committee – after it meets behind closed doors to discuss the charges. That could practically amount to immunity from criminal prosecution for state lawmakers.
The injustice of such a system is even more apparent when the case involves Harrell, who often is characterized as the most powerful politician in the state. How could we count on a completely unbiased hearing before the House Ethics Committee when the accused is the leader of the House and the hearing is private?
While this case may be unique in many respects, it nonetheless also illustrates why ethics reform in the Legislature is so vital. The state desperately needs a system in which elected officials and their families are required to reveal all sources of income and in which accusations of impropriety are examined by an outside, independent party, not committees made up entirely of fellow lawmakers.
Legislative leaders, including Harrell, promised at the beginning of the last session that meaningful ethics reform would be their top priority. But as the session came to an end, lawmakers couldn’t even pass a watered-down reform bill.
We hope when the Legislature returns that ethics reform is at the top of the agenda.
Regarding Harrell’s case, we are not in a position to judge the validity of the accusations against him. But we are relieved that the Supreme Court has allowed Wilson’s investigation to proceed independent of any actions taken by the House Ethics Committee.