COLUMBIA - After a winding and contentious road, the case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell is essentially back where it started.
Only this time, it largely could play out behind closed doors.
Harrell, R-Charleston, was handed a defeat last week when the S.C. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Attorney General Alan Wilson has the authority to move forward with a long-running ethics-related investigation into the speaker. Harrell, who said the case should have been vetted by a House panel first, has been accused of using his campaign funds for personal use and his position for personal benefit.
The case has been far from ordinary and highly publicized. The attorney general and speaker have publicly feuded as Harrell has said that the facts will exonerate him. He also has accused Wilson of pursuing the case for political gain.
Wilson, the state's top prosecutor, has pointed to a 10-month state police investigation and emphasized that all he is seeking to do is investigate the allegations.
Asked for comment, Harrell referred back to his statement on Thursday's Supreme Court decision. He said then, in part: "Clearly the Attorney General's motivations have been corrupted by political motives and that is why he needs to be replaced with a fair and impartial prosecutor." Wilson's office declined to comment.
The issue of whether Wilson should be allowed to remain on the case is expected to be decided by Circuit Judge Casey Manning. Manning is expected to receive the case in two or three weeks.
The case's newest twist may also change that public dynamic: the state Supreme Court's order that suggests further court proceedings should be held out of the public eye. While experts say that could allow Manning to review secret grand jury evidence against Harrell - and thus determine whether Wilson's investigation has merit - some worry that a secretive process could open the door for speculation when a result is announced, keeping the public in the dark about how and why decisions are made.
Harrell's attorneys initially had sought to disqualify Wilson because they believe he has a conflict of interest in the case. Judge Manning ruled that could not be considered because Harrell's alleged ethics violations should first be vetted by the House Ethics Committee, a decision that was overturned by the S.C. Supreme Court.
Manning allowed the initial hearing to be heard publicly, something former attorney general Charlie Condon said was good for the process. The more the public knows about its court system and public officials the better, he said.
"I don't think that's wise public policy at all," Condon said of a secret hearing.
Ashley Landess, president of the small government advocacy group S.C. Policy Council, said there is no reason to hold further hearings in secret. "There is a real danger in allowing that to happen in secret considering the already disturbing nature of this process so far," she said. Landess' group has raised many of the allegations against Harrell and pushed Wilson to take the case.
Media attorney Jay Bender has said that it's unlikely the press and open government groups will be able to fight the Supreme Court's opinion on secrecy.
The media and other court watchers were given a preview in March of the primary issue that Manning is expected to decide - Wilson's alleged conflict of interest in the case, the initial reason the case went to court. During that hearing, just two people testified: Wilson and Harrell chief of staff Brad Wright.
Wright and Wilson had met in April 2013 to discuss a piece of legislation the attorney general was interested in. Wright testified that he was asked to convey to Harrell that Wilson had friends with "deep pockets" if legislation the attorney general wanted didn't move forward. Harrell, who knew he was being investigated at the time, said to reporters after the hearing that an "olive branch" had been offered.
Harrell's detractors say the evidence is thin. John Crangle, director of the advocacy group Common Cause, has been critical of Harrell and said the speaker should negotiate a plea deal. "He can't continue this thing any further," Crangle said. "He's up to his ears in trouble."
Harrell attorney Bart Daniel disagreed. "We're confident that when all the facts and evidence are laid out," he said, "Bobby Harrell will be exonerated."
Landess said no one is guaranteed an impartial prosecutor. "(Harrell) is entitled to an impartial judge and jury. He is not entitled to an impartial prosecutor. He is our advocate and he is supposed to advocate for us. I hope this time Judge Manning gets it right."
Harrell has vowed to fight the allegations until the end. In a March interview, he said he hoped all the facts can be laid on the table.
"It is incredibly important to me to make sure everybody knows that my family's reputation that has been earned over generations should be as good as it's always been," he said.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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