Wilson, aide crossed line in attacking Pascoe

SC Attorney General Alan Wilson might have been right on the law, but he went too far in his attacks on Solicitor David Pascoe at his news conference last week.
SC Attorney General Alan Wilson might have been right on the law, but he went too far in his attacks on Solicitor David Pascoe at his news conference last week. tdominick@thestate.com

We put our attorneys general in a difficult position. We require them to be politicians in order to become attorney general, but once they are elected, we expect them to be impartial prosecutors, running what you could almost call a quasi-judicial office.

I get that.

I also get that Attorney General Alan Wilson was enraged, perhaps justifiably, over what he saw as a deceptive and misleading court document filed by First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe in an effort to initiate a State Grand Jury investigation. By law, only the attorney general can do that.

But none of that excuses the attempt by Mr. Wilson’s deputy chief of staff to launch a political smear campaign against Mr. Pascoe after Mr. Wilson removed the solicitor from the investigation. Nor does it excuse Mr. Wilson’s own attacks on Mr. Pascoe.

Adam Piper, the deputy chief of staff, told The State’s John Monk he was acting without Mr. Wilson’s knowledge when he asked state Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore to attack Mr. Pascoe as the puppet of former state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian. Maybe that’s true. But Mr. Wilson knows now, and unless he wants to own this, he needs to do more than simply ask Mr. Piper to “please refrain from sending emails or texts on matters regarding the office.” He needs to publicly denounce Mr. Piper’s actions and punish his deputy in some way. Given the gravity of this situation, I don’t think firing Mr. Piper would be going too far.

Frankly, I don’t understand why a political operative is serving as a top aide to the attorney general; I had the same questions about former Attorney General Henry McMaster. There’s no law against it, and I’m sure Mr. McMaster and Mr. Wilson would tell you that an attorney general needs politically savvy people to lobby the Legislature.

But Mr. Piper’s actions remind us, once again, that putting someone with no legal training and no appreciation for legal ethics in such an important position is a really bad idea.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to guess where Mr. Piper got the idea that it was OK to smear someone who was engaged in a legal dispute with his boss: All he had to do was watch Mr. Wilson’s angry, peevish news conference last week.

Given the charges by critics that Mr. Wilson was acting to protect political friends, it was legitimate for him to walk through the chronology of the investigation. It was legitimate for him to explain that the law requires the attorney general to sign off on a State Grand Jury investigation, that Mr. Pascoe declined even to ask him to do that, and that Mr. Pascoe rebuffed his efforts to correct the error, instead filing his first petition with the Supreme Court.

I think it was legitimate for Mr. Wilson to say he had reservations about appointing Mr. Pascoe to take over the prosecution of then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, from which the current investigation grew. I think it was legitimate to say that his reservations seemed to have been confirmed when Mr. Pascoe scheduled Mr. Harrell’s guilty plea without even telling Mr. Wilson he had reached a plea agreement; that certainly indicates that Mr. Pascoe didn’t want the attorney general who did the heavy lifting to be present to get any credit.

I think it would have been legitimate to say — as he implied but didn’t manage to say — that the petition Mr. Pascoe filed with the Supreme Court could be used by defense attorneys to discredit the investigation, and that was why he had to remove him.

But he could have said all of that in a professional, detached way.

It was unprofessional and undignified — and it reflected worse on Mr. Wilson than on Mr. Pascoe — for the attorney general to call Mr. Pascoe incompetent and untrustworthy and “tainted.” It was irresponsible to use the inflammatory word “lie” to characterize Mr. Pascoe’s petition. It was gratuitous to say that Mr. Pascoe “was not my first choice, nor my second, nor my third, nor my fourth, nor my fifth” to take over the Harrell prosecution.

A Columbia attorney with no opinion as to who is right in the Wilson-Pascoe dispute told me Tuesday that he and other attorneys were horrified by the news conference. “I assure you,” he wrote, “if one of us called a press conference for the purpose of shaming another lawyer or accusing him of incompetence or lies, we’d likely have a disciplinary grievance filed against us and be subject to discipline by the Supreme Court, and perhaps be sued for slander.”

I don’t know whether Mr. Wilson crossed that legal line, but he certainly was out of line.

We can only hope that the Supreme Court is able to set aside his public behavior and concentrate solely on the merits of his legal conflict with Mr. Pascoe, because the implications of the court’s decision could be profound.

But it certainly wouldn’t be inappropriate for the court to communicate its displeasure with Mr. Wilson’s news conference. In fact, our criminal justice system would probably benefit from such a rebuke.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor at The (Columbia) State newspaper.