One of the biggest shortcomings of ethics laws in this state is that legislators are allowed to make the call on complaints against their colleagues.
And that problem would be magnified in a big way if the complaint against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is sent to the House Ethics Committee for review and a ruling.
Gedney Howe, a lawyer for Mr. Harrell, on Tuesday insisted that's the only place those charges can be heard.
"The ethics committee has the exclusive jurisdiction," Mr. Howe told our reporter. "That's the only entity with jurisdiction."
A March 21 hearing on the speaker's case centered around whether Attorney General Alan Wilson should be allowed to serve as prosecutor when the matter is taken up by the state grand jury. Mr. Harrell's attorneys wanted to have that hearing closed, but Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning kept it open.
Though Mr. Wilson is the state's chief prosecutor, the speaker's attorneys then contended that he shouldn't be allowed to exercise that role because of a verbal dispute with a member of the speaker's staff over pending legislation.
At that point, the issue regarding the House Ethics Committee wasn't raised.
Since that hearing, the state has been waiting for Judge Manning's decision on the Wilson question. Mr. Howe says that hearing is scheduled next Wednesday, but his assertion regarding the Ethics Committee suggests that the judge might be fielding an entirely different question.
Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, filed a complaint that Rep. Harrell improperly used campaign funds and used his office for personal gain.
The Post and Courier reported in 2012 that Mr. Harrell had reimbursed himself $325,000 in campaign contributions to defray what the speaker termed as legitimate legislative expenses and politically related travel. Those included the cost of operating his private airplane.
Mr. Harrell was unable to account for some $23,000 in expenses, saying that the records had been lost in an office move. He reimbursed his campaign that amount.
The speaker has described the complaint as "a baseless attack ... driven by personal and political vendetta."
In comments to our reporter, Mr. Howe cited an October 2012 news release in which Attorney General Wilson said that the House Ethics Committee should be the first place for review.
But Mr. Wilson has clearly changed his point of view. He has since received the results of a 10-month probe by the State Law Enforcement Division, and is now prepared to take the case to the state grand jury, which has authority to conduct its own investigation, compel testimony and issue indictments.
Shifting the venue to the House Ethics Committee wouldn't exactly add credibility to the process, considering Speaker Harrell's wide-ranging authority over the House.
Indeed, it would be a dramatic representation of what is most wrong with the legislative ethics process.
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