COLUMBIA - The eventual ruling from a Richland County circuit judge in an ethics-related case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell could have far-reaching consequences.

Judge Casey Manning on Friday delayed his decision on whether Harrell must face his legislative peers or a court over allegations that stem from whether the Charleston Republican used his campaign account for personal gain and his position to benefit his company.

At issue at the hearing was whether such ethics-related complaints could be investigated by a state grand jury, at the direction of Attorney General Alan Wilson, or whether they needed to be aired by the House Ethics Committee first.

Wilson and Harrell's critics cast the issue as whether one set of laws apply to the Legislature and another to everybody else. Underscoring the issue's importance, all three of South Carolina's living former attorneys general - Travis Medlock, Charlie Condon and Henry McMaster - sat in the court's front row to support the contention that the attorney general is free to investigate anyone.

Wilson noted that no charges have been filed in the case. He announced earlier this year that a state grand jury would investigate the allegations against Harrell after state police completed a 10-month criminal investigation.

Wilson said that if the case had to first be heard by the Ethics Committee - made up of Harrell's fellow legislators and, critics say, beholden to the powerful House speaker - the committee could choose to do nothing with the allegations.

Without the ability of the attorney general to step in, "legislators may have immunity from prosecution," Wilson told the judge. He said the House Ethics Committee deals only with civil matters. The allegations against Harrell, he said, are criminal in nature.

The state embraced such powers for the attorney general after the 1990s Operation Lost Trust scandal in which legislators were caught taking massive bribes in the form of campaign contributions. "Public trust was lost in all branches of government," Wilson said.

Harrell's attorneys disagree, saying the law is clear and that any ethics-related complaint against a legislator must first be heard by the House Ethics Committee. They cited Manning's opinion in a past case against now Gov. Nikki Haley, a former member of the S.C. House. Conservative activist John Rainey had sought for the state court to take up the ethics matter, but it was rejected by the court and later upheld by the state Supreme Court.

Procedural battle

Manning repeatedly asked Wilson and one of his deputies: "Is this an ethical violation or criminal complaint?"

Bart Daniel, Harrell's attorney, read an October 2012 news release from Wilson's office when he initially rejected the case against Harrell, which Ashley Landess of the small government watchdog group South Carolina Policy Council had asked Wilson to take on.

"The process must proceed as prescribed by state law," Wilson's office said in an October 2012 news release. "Should the House Ethics Committee not act, this Office is then prepared to do what is in the public's best interest."

Wilson said as more facts came to light, it was clear that the allegations were potential crimes and thus could be investigated by a grand jury.

Daniel said the complaint must begin with the House ethics panel. If a criminal violation is found, the panel could turn over the case to law enforcement. "What the attorney general is assuming is that legislators are not going to follow the law," Daniel told the court. "No one is asking for immunity from any prosecution, only that the proper procedure is followed."

In a joint statement, the attorneys general said they feared that if Manning kicked the case to the House ethics panel, legislators would receive different treatment than the rest of the public. The attorney general has "time-tested authority ... to prosecute crime and enforce the laws of South Carolina equally, with no privileges or special terms or conditions for any citizen, including elected officials. ... Not one of us ever imagined the Attorney General needed authorization from a legislative committee or political body in order to investigate or prosecute alleged criminal behavior by an elected official."

Medlock said in an interview that he ensured that legislators added "public corruption" to the state grand jury's powers after public confidence in elected officials' conduct hit rock bottom after Operation Lost Trust.

Landess said she did not pursue the complaint with the House committee because the speaker hires and fires House staff as well as holds sway over committee assignments and other core functions of the body. She also said she believes his actions rise to the level of public corruption - not ethics violations.

Likely appeal

Harrell told reporters afterward in a brief news conference that he is simply asking the court to follow the law as it is written. He later said in a statement that Wilson's motivations are political and that he should have followed the proper process. Wilson is running for re-election this year.

"The unique political maneuvers in this matter contradict the state constitution, ethics act, court rulings and even Attorney General Wilson's own official legal positions and precedents," Harrell said in a statement. "These disparate actions call into question Mr. Wilson's motives and cast serious doubt on his ability to be a fair and impartial prosecutor in this case.

"By overstepping the bounds of separation of powers, the attorney general has seriously damaged the credibility of this process. The court has been asked to restore public trust in this vital constitutional check by ruling that the proper legal process - not the attorney general's political process - must be followed."

Whatever Manning decides, the decision is likely to be appealed, he said.

The appeal's process already has some worried. John Crangle, an attorney and Harrell critic who directs the Common Cause advocacy group, said that the state Supreme Court has historically sided with the Legislature. Harrell was also an open advocate for the election of Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal this year and his support helped her win the election. The General Assembly also decides the court system's budget.

"Yeah, I'm worried about that," Crangle said.

Manning said he plans to take his time deciding the case and that he could ask attorneys for more information on the issue. It is unclear when he will rule.

The case against Harrell came months after an investigation by The Post and Courier into the speaker's money and finances, and in the wake of complaints raised by several public interest groups.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.