COLUMBIA — After referring an ethics complaint against House Speaker Bobby Harrell to the state’s top law enforcement agency last week, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said Tuesday that he is returning thousands in contributions from Harrell and a group tied to him. Wilson said in a statement that the donations don’t mean his office is conflicted in a potential investigation of the Charleston Republican.

“However, appearance does matter,” Wilson said. “Therefore, I have instructed my campaign to refund both contributions. I am doing this in an abundance of caution to avoid even the slightest appearance or impression that this office could be compromised in any way.”

Still, John Crangle, executive director of the state government watchdog group S.C. Common Cause, said Wilson should recuse himself from investigation of Harrell.

“If he took an illegal campaign contribution from Harrell’s campaign account, then he, Wilson, is implicated in the transaction,” Crangle said. “Wilson knows or should know as attorney general that he can’t accept money from an official’s campaign account.”

Wilson’s decision to return the money came after an attorney for the State Ethics Commission said earlier Tuesday that one of the contributions, a maximum $3,500 donation dated Jan. 6, 2011, from Harrell’s campaign fund for Wilson’s 2011 inaugural party, would be improper for any elected official to make. Harrell’s office disputed that assessment Tuesday.

State law bars contributions from one candidate’s campaign account to another candidate’s campaign coffers. And State Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood said a candidate shouldn’t use his or her campaign funds for such a donation because campaign expenditures “have to bear a fairly direct relationship to a candidate’s re-election or to the office they’re holding.”

The Ethics Commission has authority over statewide and local elected officials such as Wilson but not state legislators such as Harrell.

On Harrell’s campaign disclosure forms, the $3,500 contribution is described as “sponsorship for inaugural gala” to “Alan Wilson for Attorney General.” Wilson’s campaign filings do not list the contribution. The (Columbia) Free-Times first reported on the gala contribution.

Wilson said he also is returning an Oct. 11, 2010, $3,500 contribution from the Palmetto Leadership Council, a group associated with Harrell.

Unless the State Law Enforcement Division finds no evidence to pursue further investigation of Harrell following an initial inquiry requested by Wilson, he will be in a position to pursue further investigation or prosecution of Harrell.

The complaint against Harrell by S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess alleges among other charges that Harrell used his office and campaign account for personal gain.

Crangle said the Common Cause board on Thursday will decide whether to formally seek that Harrell resign as speaker and Wilson recuse himself from an investigation of Harrell.

Greg Foster, a spokesman for Harrell, said the speaker’s $3,500 contribution for Wilson’s inaugural was proper.

Foster cited a 1999 opinion from the House Ethics Committee, the body that generally polices ethics complaints against current and former House members.

That opinion details how candidates may use campaign funds to make contributions to non-profit organizations. Wilson’s office said the gala did not have non-profit status. But Foster said House Ethics Committee staff (who are not authorized to speak to reporters on the record) said the opinion speaks to the broader issue of lawmakers supporting events like the Wilson party in their official capacity.

Foster added that Wilson directly sought the contribution from Harrell for the gala.

Attorney General’s Office spokesman Mark Powell said Wilson sought contributions for the event from many donors.