Grand jury investigations are secretive. Except when they're not.
That's part of the takeaway from Tuesday's Supreme Court hearing between House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Attorney General Alan Wilson.
The publicity issue arose after S.C. Chief Justice Jean Toal questioned the logic of Wilson issuing a news release in January - just before the start of the Statehouse session - saying he was launching a grand jury probe into ethics allegations raised against Harrell, R-Charleston.
From the bench, Toal said it didn't sound right.
"I find it curious that we know all that," she said, adding that "I've never heard of having a news release to announce you're going to submit something to the grand jury, ever," according to published reports.
But the historical record says otherwise. Wilson, for instance, issued a press notification when he announced in July 2011 than an ethics and campaign spending review of former Lieutenant Governor Ken Ard was going to the state grand jury.
Ard's spending had been the subject of multiple media reports. Eight months later he pleaded guilty to ethics violations and resigned.
On Friday, former S.C. Attorney General - and now private practice lawyer - Charlie Condon issued a release saying that as a former office holder he felt "a moral obligation" to set the record straight on grand jury publicity and how often it's been used before.
"I can absolutely confirm that attorneys general frequently notify the media when referrals are made to the state grand jury," he said. "That has been true of every attorney general since the state grand jury was created."
Condon, who said he was issuing his statement as a private citizen with no access to official state records, said he tabulated at least a dozen instances of the practice.
"To say that confirmation of the case is unheard of, that is not factually accurate," he added in an interview. His research showed examples of 11 news releases announcing grand jury probes between 1995 and 2011, including for such reviews as the Colleton County shootings in 2009, Carolina Investors in 2003, and prison sex in 2000.
Condon's view is that publicly announcing a grand jury referral serves two purposes: it tells the public that a case of widespread interest has not been ignored, and "because it's the best way to inform reporters that you can no longer discuss the case publicly."
He said he favored disclosure in most instances, except when issues of safety or tipping off target subjects might be a concern. He pointed to a drug dealing conspiracy, where violence might be part of a target's habit, as a possible example.
Harrell and his legal team have been highly critical of Wilson's public release of the probe, saying it has contributed to tarnishing his reputation. Harrell has been accused of using his campaign funds for personal use and abusing his position to benefit his pharmaceutical company, among other allegations raised in reports by The Post and Courier and by a Columbia-based small-government advocacy group called the S.C. Policy Council.
After an earlier review, Circuit Judge Casey Manning ruled any investigation of Harrell's conduct must first go through the House Ethics Committee, not the grand jury, as Wilson wants. Manning also said there was no evidence of any criminal conduct in the case.
Tuesday's S.C. Supreme Court hearing was to decide whether Manning had interpreted state law correctly when he ruled that any ethics allegation against Harrell should first go to the House Ethics Committee. The justices gave no indication of when they would issue a decision.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.
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