COLUMBIA - Attorney General Alan Wilson asked the Supreme Court on Friday to review grand jury documents related to the case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell behind closed doors, according to documents filed with the court.
In what the attorney general called an "unusual" request, Wilson also asked that those documents be kept from Harrell and his attorneys.
The court also ruled Friday that a grand jury investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell can continue while the matter is appealed. The court's five justices had said previously that Wilson could continue to investigate under state law, but Harrell's attorneys asked the court to block the investigation until the appeal could be decided. The court denied that request.
Harrell, R-Charleston, 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. A circuit court judge halted the investigation, but the Supreme Court has said that the grand jury may continue to investigate until the court hears Wilson's appeal.
As a part of the appeal, the attorney general's office wants the justices to review documents being considered by the grand jury - but not in open court and without Harrell or his attorneys having the benefit of seeing the evidence against him.
Typically, a grand jury conducts its investigation in secret, and evidence against a defendant is not made public until or unless there is an indictment.
"There is no need to give Respondent (Harrell) a 'free look' into the information before the State Grand Jury," the attorney general's request says. Justice Costa Pleicones signed an initial order allowing the documents to be sealed and delivered to the court Tuesday. The court plans to consider arguments from Harrell's attorneys and rule on whether the documents should remain sealed, the order says.
Mark Powell, the attorney general's spokesman, declined to comment. Harrell's spokesman and attorneys couldn't be reached Tuesday. 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 to the Supreme Court 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.
John Crangle, an attorney and Harrell critic who is director of the advocacy group Common Cause, has said he has written a letter to Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justice Pleicones. He has asked both judges to recuse themselves from the case because Harrell was an open supporter of Toal over Pleicones during the recent Supreme Court election.
Both sides are expected to argue the case June 24 before the Supreme Court.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.