House Speaker Bobby Harrell said he was pleased with Monday's decision by S.C. Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning, who ruled that the speaker's case would go to the House Ethics Committee rather than the state grand jury. But it's difficult to imagine anyone else but a Harrell partisan applauding that turn of events.
The best that can be said about the ruling is that it further exposes, though unintentionally, the shortcomings of a system that gives legislators the authority to decide ethics cases involving their colleagues.
Those shortcomings increase exponentially when that colleague is the speaker of the House. The speaker has wide-ranging authority over matters involving that chamber and long-standing relationships with its members, including those who sit on the Ethics Committee. It's not a forum that guarantees impartial review.
And the presumption that the case should go to the House Ethics Committee is accurate only if ethics issues are solely in question. In his ruling, Judge Manning wrote, "The allegations of the citizen's complaint giving rise to this investigation were conclusively within the Ethics Code."
But there was a 10-month investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division following that complaint. The fact that Attorney General Alan Wilson sent the case to the state grand jury is an indication that the probe raised questions about more than ethics issues.
Further, Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council, alleged public corruption in her complaint.
Questions about Mr. Harrell's use of campaign funds were first raised by The Post and Courier in 2012. Our reports cited reimbursements of $300,000 in campaign funds for what Mr. Harrell, a Charleston Republican, says were legitimate political and office expenses.
Ms. Landess' complaint against Mr. Harrell, contending that he used his office for personal gain, cites those reimbursements. It also contended that the speaker used his influence to obtain a permit for the benefit of his pharmaceutical company.
Mr. Harrell has described those charges as politically motivated. He has characterized Mr. Wilson's involvement in the case as similarly motivated.
However, the attorney general insists that he's simply trying to do his job as the state's chief prosecutor. And among the designated responsibilities of the grand jury is investigating charges of public corruption.
Moreover, SLED director Mark Keel supported Mr. Wilson's decision to send the case to the grand jury.
So far, the findings of the SLED investigation are not public, and since the attorney general plans to continue his legal efforts to have the grand jury assume authority over the case, they will remain under wraps.
Mr. Harrell, however, has urged that the information be made public. So presumably those findings will eventually come to light, no matter where the case ends up.
And while the Ethics Committee typically goes behind closed doors to hear charges and rule on them, it can operate in public, as it did in 2012 in a hearing on a complaint regarding Gov. Nikki Haley while she served as a legislator.
Indeed, Judge Manning relied on his own ruling in that case, as he sent Mr. Harrell's case to the Ethics Committee. Meanwhile, the judge pointed out that the state Ethics Code mandates the House Ethics Committee to refer alleged criminal violations to the attorney general.
But, he added, "Any investigation by the state grand jury at this stage is illegitimate because the [ethics] act's administrative remedies have not been exhausted."
That position is counter to the collective view of three previous attorneys general, each of whom contributed to the development of the grand jury system in South Carolina. Travis Medlock, Charles M. Condon and Henry McMaster said in a joint statement early this month: "Over the past 30 years, 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. Such a restriction would undercut the core constitutional authority of the attorney general. And even more importantly, it would violate the fundamental basis of our system of government that all people should be treated equally under the law."
At this point, Judge Manning's decision is the one that counts.
But the former attorneys general underscore the essential problem with sending this case to the House Ethics Committee.
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