COLUMBIA - Lawyers for two powerful Republicans squared off in a courtroom Friday to determine whether politics is playing into the grand jury investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
Testimony showed both sides were standing their ground.
"I don't play politics, I don't play favorites," Alan Wilson said in a rare occasion of a sitting attorney general testifying in open court.
On the other side, an aide for Harrell testified that he felt intimidated during an April 2013 meeting with Wilson.
"I thought I was being asked to deliver a threat to Speaker Harrell," said Brad Wright, the speaker's legal counsel and chief of staff.
The two were the only witnesses called in Harrell's attempt to have Wilson removed as prosecutor in the ongoing state grand jury investigation into Harrell's campaign spending and conduct.
Circuit Judge Casey Manning said he would seek to make a decision next week on whether Wilson should be removed from the case.
At Wilson's request, state police began looking at the case after S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess, who runs the small government advocacy group, filed a complaint more than a year ago alleging that Harrell used his influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business. Other allegations stem from a 2012 Post and Courier report that raised accusations that Harrell couldn't account for money withdrawn from his campaign, and that he had used his campaign account for personal expenses.
The newspaper's report pointed to generic descriptions Harrell gave on quarterly campaign filings to explain his reimbursements.
Harrell said at that time that he followed the state ethics law, which requires forms to provide a "brief description" of each expense, and that he would be more specific going forward.
At the hearing, Harrell's lawyers attempted to show that Wright's testimony showed that Wilson had improperly threatened the speaker long before it became a grand jury issue. Wilson mentioned an ongoing State Law Enforcement Division investigation into the speaker while he pushed for a piece of legislation he wanted to pass the House of Representatives. Wilson has publicly argued for the creation of a state Public Integrity Unit, which would bring together state agencies and resources to investigate and prosecute ethics complaints.
Wright said that Wilson told him to convey to the speaker that he had friends with "deep pockets" if legislation to create the integrity unit didn't move forward. Harrell said to reporters after the hearing that an "olive branch" had been offered.
He later testified, though, that there was no quid-pro-quo offered - Wilson did not offer to drop the ethics complaint against Harrell in return for legislation that would create the integrity unit.
Wilson testified that he never meant to threaten or intimidate Wright. He also did not recall the "deep pockets" comment. He said he set up the meeting with Wright because he couldn't meet with the speaker directly. Because it was common knowledge in Columbia that Wilson had referred the ethics complaint against Harrell to state authorities, it would have been inappropriate for him to meet with the speaker in person, he testified.
Still, he said he wanted to push for the legislation with Wright and convey to the speaker that referring the ethics case to state police was not personal.
"I wanted to lessen tensions," Wilson said of the meeting. At one point he told Harrell's lawyers: "You're trying to prosecute the prosecutor."
Harrell's lawyers had pushed for Friday's hearing to be held out of the public eye. The S.C. Press Association asked the judge to open the hearing. Manning quickly ruled Friday that the hearing should be open to the public and it went forward.
Harrell's attorneys said they have apologized to their client. The speaker has always wanted the proceedings to be public, they said, but they did not believe they could be opened because the secret grand jury investigation is going forward at the same time.
Harrell, who has insisted that a fair process would clear him of any charges, said he was pleased the hearing was open to the public. "I am very pleased the judge has opened this up," he said. "I wish they'd do the grand jury process in an open forum."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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