The General Assembly may have taken a pass on ethics reform this year, but the state Supreme Court handed down a ruling on Wednesday that assures stronger safeguards for legislative ethics.
The court unanimously decided that the state grand jury has jurisdiction over an ethics complaint against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. In doing so, it reversed Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning's ruling that the House Ethics Committee should get the complaint.
Rep. Harrell faces an ethics complaint related to his use of campaign money for the operation of his private airplane. The South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank based in Columbia, filed the complaint with the attorney general's office, also contending that Mr. Harrell used his office for personal gain.
Rep. Harrell has described the complaint as "a baseless attack ... driven by a personal and political vendetta."
Under Judge Manning's ruling, the House Ethics Committee would first have had to determine the possibility of criminal wrongdoing before the case could advance to the grand jury. Not so, said the Supreme Court:
"The House Ethics Committee's concurrent civil regulatory authority does not affect the attorney general's authority to initiate a criminal investigation in any way, whether or not there is a referral or even a pending House investigation."
In short, the attorney general, as the state's chief prosecutor, can decide whether a case involving a legislator should go to the grand jury. That power is granted by the state Constitution, the court said, and "cannot be impaired by legislation."
Still to be decided is whether Mr. Wilson himself can take charge of the investigation once the case reaches the grand jury. Mr. Harrell's lawyers have sought to have him removed from the case, contending that he has demonstrated antagonism to the speaker.
That issue will go back to Judge Manning for a decision. It has been suggested by Mr. Harrell's lawyers that one of the state's 16 local solicitors could handle the case.
In any event, the state grand jury will examine the material collected by SLED in its 10-month investigation of the complaint.
By removing the House Ethics Committee from the equation, the Supreme Court has removed a potential cloud of favoritism over the process. The fact that the House Ethics Committee investigates and adjudicates complaints against their colleagues is a flawed system, at best.
Having the House Ethics Committee handle a case involving the most powerful individual in the House would have been even worse.
Changes to that system should have been at the center of any meaningful ethics reform by the General Assembly in its recent session.
Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to advance that provision in its ethics reform bill. And then a Senate filibuster at the end of the session killed the bill altogether.
By its unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court has put the complaint against Mr. Harrell in the proper forum.
And it has ensured that legislators aren't altogether a protected class when it comes to ethics.