COLUMBIA - Attorney General Alan Wilson maintains that he does not need the permission of the House Ethics Committee for the case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell to be investigated, according to a legal brief he filed Friday with the State Supreme Court.
"It is up to the Legislature to determine whether someone indicted or convicted of a crime should remain a member of the body, or should receive some other reprimand or discipline," wrote Wilson in the brief. "That power in no way affects the right of the Attorney General to seek a conviction."
Wilson is appealing a May 12 ruling by Richland Circuit Judge Casey Manning, who said that ethics-related allegations against Harrell, R-Charleston, 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.
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.
But Wilson argues that the absence of a complaint to the ethics committee - and the later referral to the attorney general - doesn't mean that the attorney general and SLED can't start their own investigation.
Wilson said Manning's conclusion would give criminal immunity to lawmakers simply because they are legislators.
"They would be super-citizens shielded from criminal prosecution by virtue of who they are, and what position they hold, making them 'above the law'," Wilson wrote. "Such a conclusion undermines public confidence ... "
Harrell has until Monday, June 16, to file his brief.
Former South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon said he expects the Supreme Court will reverse Manning's decision. Condon said it's not personal, but he believes Manning's order is incorrect.
"It just never occurred to me, while I was Attorney General, that you would have to get the permission of the any sort of committee before you could launch an investigation," Condon said. "There's an inherent possible conflict with that, because the ethics committee would be made of members of the General Assembly, of course. So, the lawmaker would ... get the special privilege of having their colleagues approve the investigation, which of course no other citizen in South Carolina has such a special privilege."
Both sides are expected to argue the case June 24 before the Supreme Court. A request for comment from either side was not immediately returned.
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.
Meanwhile, 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 Costa Pleicones.
In it, Crangle said he noted there could be an appearance of a conflict of interest if either Pleicones or Toal were involved in the case, because Harrell intervened in the election of the chief justice.
Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.