COLUMBIA - The battle over ethics reform in South Carolina took a new turn Thursday as lawmakers killed but promised to resurrect a bill that would allow them to remove the attorney general and other officials from prosecuting certain ethics and public corruption cases.
In a morning of back-and-forth politicking, the bill was immediately panned as a power grab by the Legislature and a way for lawmakers to interject themselves in an ongoing ethics probe into House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. The bill went from dozens of co-sponsors to depleted support as journalists and outside voices raised questions and problems with the bill.
The bill gave critics pause because it put the House speaker in a position to influence the removal of the attorney general and appointment of a special prosecutor. Harrell is facing an ongoing criminal probe into whether he used campaign funds for personal use. His lawyers are seeking to have Attorney General Alan Wilson removed from the case because they say his motives are political.
Under the bill, the General Assembly could appoint a special prosecutor in lieu of the attorney general when he has a conflict, such as an investigation into his own conduct. A majority of both houses would have to decide to pursue the appointment of a special prosecutor. That individual could be any member of the bar and would be appointed by the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore.
The bill did not appear to apply to cases that involved members of the Legislature, including Harrell. But outside groups said it was vague, and the bill's sponsors began to question it.
"It shows there's a panic among the supporters of Bobby Harrell trying to facilitate the removal of Alan Wilson," said John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina, and a frequent Harrell critic. "They're afraid that Wilson is going to finish off Bobby Harrell. If they get Wilson removed from the case, then they've got a mechanism to appoint a special prosecutor to replace Wilson."
Harrell had said in an earlier interview that he had nothing to do with the bill and that it would not apply to the case against him. "It does not apply to the Legislature at all," he said.
Harrell's office also released a statement on the bill Thursday. "There is no ambiguity to the fact that this bill in no way applies to the Legislature, implying otherwise is simply inaccurate political spin," Harrell said in the news release.
Mark Powell, a spokesman for the attorney general, said Wilson believes "that members of the House and Senate will ultimately act in the public interest."
Lawmakers said that the bill was intended to solve a problem raised in a Post and Courier story on Saturday. The newspaper report delved into problems with Wilson's campaign fundraising efforts, which fall under the state Ethics Act.
Cathy Hazelwood, the State Ethics Commission general counsel, said in the story that she had "no idea" who would investigate and prosecute the attorney general if it came to that. Lawmakers said Hazelwood's comments in the story prompted the bill.
Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, was an original co-sponsor on the bill but withdrew his support along with others. Smith, a Columbia lawyer, serves as an attorney for Wilson's campaign.
He called the original bill "inartful" and said it was unclear whether it would apply to the Legislature. He said he and others would draw up a more carefully crafted bill and introduce it in the coming weeks. There is little chance it would pass this year, but he hopes it could pass next year.
"We believe in the need for a special prosecutor in certain circumstances," Smith said.
The turn of events spoke to the powerful whirlwind that Harrell's case has become.
Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, said he introduced the measure to solve a glaring constitutional problem: finding an independent special prosecutor to look into the attorney general, constitutional officers and the governor's appointees. The provision only applies to charges under the Ethics Act.
As it stands, there isn't a good answer for who could be independent in such an inquiry. Other lawmakers said it could also be used to investigate troubled executive branch agencies.
Crawford had said he hoped to move the bill forward quickly. "There's a news article out there implying there might be a right-now kind of problem," Crawford said.
Ultimately, much of those efforts will have to wait until next year.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.