S.C. Supreme Court|Hears Political Arguments

     COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) – The fate of an ethics probe targeting South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell may hinge on the question of evidence withheld from the Circuit Court Judge who stopped the investigation.
     South Carolina’s Supreme Court Justices are considering whether Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning properly stopped grand jury proceedings into Harrell’s alleged ethical lapses. These include spending campaign money on his private plane, using his influence to get a license for his pharmaceutical business and appointing his brother to a panel that reviews judicial candidates.
     During an hour-long session Tuesday before a overflow crowd, however, it wasn’t Harrell’s behavior that was called into question, but rather how much information Judge Manning had when he agreed to impanel the grand jury in January, only to reverse himself three months ago.
     The South Carolina Policy Council, a nonprofit, Libertarian-leaning think tank, brought its concerns about Harrell to Attorney General Alan Wilson last year.
     Wilson, also a Republican, then asked the State Law Enforcement Division to look into the allegations. The agency issued its report on the matter after a 10-month investigation. Wilson and State Law Enforcement Division chief Mark Keel then asked that the grand jury be empanelled.
     But as quickly became clear during oral arguments at the state courthouse in Columbia, it is not at all clear whether Manning ever saw that report. Indeed, when he shut the investigation down in March, Manning said from the bench that he had received no evidence from Wilson of a criminal violation — the only type of ethical breach a state grand jury is empowered to review.
     Manning ruled that alleged civil violations of state ethics laws must be heard by the House Ethics Committee.
     Harrell has strenuously denied the allegations.
     Among the most skeptical members of the Supreme Court was Associate Justice Don Beatty, who repeatedly pressed Assistant Deputy Attorney General Creighton Waters on the question of the evidence presented to Manning.
     “This investigation has gone on for quite a while,” Beatty said. “You had more than the initial allegations made by a private citizen. You had an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division. Didn’t you have something that you could give the impaneling judge to keep this investigation before the grand jury going?”
     Waters took Beatty’s probing to mean the justice expected the attorney general to provide periodic updates to the judge on the grand jury’s activities. He offered two responses. First, waters said, such disclosures would be contrary to the confidential nature of grand jury proceedings.
     Additionally, he said, Wilson simply wanted the grand jury to do its work, unfettered by unnecessary distractions.
     Robert Stepp, one of three attorneys representing Harrell, responded to Waters’ assertion by arguing that Manning was right to seek proof of any criminal wrong-doing on Harrell’s part, and receiving none, had no choice but to shut down the investigation.
     Another issue that concerned the justices was Wilson’s issuing a press release about the empanelling of the grand jury.
     Chief Justice Jean Toal, who served for 13 years in the State House before entering the judiciary, said she’d never heard of such a thing being done before, adding: “The whole behavior in this case has been very strange.”
     Stepp said issuing the press release damaged Harrell’s reputation, as it suggested the filing of charges was a fait accompli.
     On rebuttal, Waters said the actions of the Attorney General’s Office represented “the beginning” of an investigation, “not the end.”
     But when he tried to revisit the subject of the press release at the end of the hearing, Chief Justice Toal cut him off.
     After the hearing, Attorney General Wilson and his staff left the building without comment. This was not the case for Harrell, who attended the session with his wife and children.
     “The justices 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,” Harrell told reporters.
     “He’s constantly, constantly out doing press conferences,” the speaker said of Wilson.
     Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, also spoke with reporters after the hearing, saying she’s concerned about the independence of state judges who are elected by the General Assembly, over which Harrell presides.

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