COLUMBIA - The South Carolina Supreme Court set a date Tuesday to hear the ethics-related case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, as the state's attorney general released documents that blasted a lower court decision and asked the state's highest court to reverse it.
In a letter to Attorney General Alan Wilson, the court's five justices told both sides to be prepared to argue the case June 24 at 2:30 p.m. The consequential hearing could set the stage for the final say on the criminal prosecution of Harrell, R-Charleston, for ethics-related allegations.
The high stakes for Harrell, R-Charleston, are clear. Equally, upholding a lower court decision to stop the attorney general's criminal investigation, critics charge, could exempt lawmakers from the same scrutiny the attorney general is able to apply to anyone else.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal declined to comment Tuesday.
Harrell has been accused of using his campaign funds for personal use and abusing his position to benefit his company, among other allegations. Wilson had referred the case to a state grand jury earlier this year after state police completed a 10-month criminal investigation.
On May 12, Richland Circuit Judge Casey Manning said that ethics-related allegations against Harrell could not be investigated by Wilson or a state grand jury and instead need to first be vetted by the House Ethics Committee, a panel of lawmakers charged with investigating and disciplining House members. Critics say that a jury of Harrell's peers would not be able to be impartial, especially given the broad power of the House speaker.
Manning and Harrell's attorneys said the law is clear: all ethics-related allegations need to first be heard by the House Ethics Committee. If the committee finds evidence of criminal behavior, it then must ask the attorney general to investigate.
Wilson's appeal says that a state court has never before shut down a grand jury investigation. In Harrell's case, critics and lawyers following the case said it was a rare, if not unprecedented, step for a judge to halt a grand jury investigation. No charges have been filed in the case.
"(Manning's) order. flatly treads upon the Attorney General's constitutionally protected role as the prosecutor of crime," the appeal says.
The appeal also slams Manning's decision. "The lower court's order is unprecedented in American law and unsupported by any known legal authority," the attorney general wrote.
Harrell fired back Tuesday, saying that Wilson should appoint a special prosecutor to look into what he calls the attorney general's own potential Ethics Act violations. The Post and Courier reported in April that Wilson had accepted thousands in over-the-limit campaign contributions and that amendments to his campaign finance reports showed dozens of previously undisclosed donors. Wilson's campaign has been amending reports and returning contributions that were over the limit, including a lobbyist's contribution. A spokesman for Wilson's campaign has said that Wilson's campaign finance report issues were the result of mistakes by campaign volunteers and a financial consultant.
In his appeal, Wilson writes: "Neither does the order of the lower court acknowledge that all violations of the State Ethics Act carry criminal penalties."
Harrell seized on that part of the appeal.
"If he actually believes what he wrote in this filing, then he himself is guilty of over 30 criminal violations, including accepting money from lobbyists, accepting money above the legal limit and failing to report a number of items," Harrell said. "He ought to have a special prosecutor take a look at this."
Harrell said he hopes Wilson himself argues the case in front of the Supreme Court.
Wilson's campaign lawyer, Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, has said that because the attorney general has been correcting his campaign finance reports, no violations occurred. "There are no allegations of criminal violations against the attorney general," Smith said Tuesday.
Harrell also said that Manning's ruling is clear. "They (Wilson) didn't present one piece of any kind of evidence pointing at anything criminal," he said. Without criminal allegations, Manning ruled, the state could not move forward with its case. Wilson contends the allegations are, in fact, criminal in nature and he and a state grand jury have the authority to investigate all criminal allegations.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.