CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – The South Carolina Supreme Court today will weigh into the thorny issue of how the state prosecutes political ethics charges, in a case that pits the state’s powerful House Speaker against its attorney general.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican, has been accused of improperly using campaign funds, of unlawfully using his influence to obtain a state permit for his pharmaceutical business, and of inappropriately appointing his brother to a judicial candidate screening committee.
The South Carolina Policy Council, a nonprofit, Libertarian-leaning think tank that espouses limited government, brought its concerns about Harrell to Attorney General Alan Wilson last year.
Wilson, also a Republican, asked the State Law Enforcement Division to look into the allegations and after receiving its report, decided the matter should be taken to the a grand jury.
Harrell adamantly denied the allegations, and over the past several weeks has waged a concerted effort to block the empanelling of the grand jury and thwart any further investigation of the charges.
The State Supreme Court is hearing Wilson’s appeal of a circuit court order which, among other things, found that the state grand jury lacks subject matter jurisdiction to consider allegations that the South Carolina Ethics, Government Accountability and Campaign Reform Act has been violated.
In making that determination, Circuit Judge Casey Manning found that Wilson does not have jurisdiction in Harrell’s case because the accusations against the speaker are civil in nature. Manning halted any further investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division.
Wilson has asked the state’s highest court to determine whether the case against Harrell can go forward before the grand jury or if it must first be put before the House Ethics Committee.
That committee can handle only civil issues and, should it determine criminal charges are possible, must refer the case to the attorney general for potential prosecution.
The court has set aside 50 minutes this afternoon to hear the case, captioned 2014-001058.
Wilson is expected to argue that the case does involve criminal allegations and therefore the attorney general can alone determine whether it merits criminal investigation and prosecution.
Harrell, who has been house speaker since 2005, has dismissed this argument all along, charging that political considerations rather than the law are behind Wilson’s pushing of the case.
A decision by the state Supreme Court is expected within 30 days.
Aside from the political theater of Harrell versus Wilson, the case is being closely watched across the state for another reason: South Carolina is one of only two states where lawmakers elect judges, leading to the perception that the judiciary here is beholden to the Legislature and therefore, Harrell.
Under the system in place here, judicial applicants are screened by a panel that is selected by legislators. The panel then passes on recommendations to the Legislature for final approval.
In addition to Wilson, the state attorney general’s office will be represented at today’s hearing by Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Solicitor General Robert D. Cook, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General W. Allen Myrick, Assistant Deputy Attorney General S. Creighton Waters, and Assistant Attorney General Brian T. Petrano.
Harrell is represented by E. Bart Daniel and Gedney M. Howe, III, both of Charleston, and Robert E. Stepp, Robert E. Tyson, Jr. and Roland M. Franklin, Jr., all of Sowell Gray Stepp & Laffitte, LLC, of Columbia.
- Firing Over Boob-Grab Offer Supports Lawsuit
- Baby’s Removal Won’t Leave Hospital Liable