UPDATE: Public Defender Ashley Pennington said he is pleased to have been cleared of ethics allegations that "have been a distraction to the important work that we do for our clients and our community as public defenders."
"I look forward to putting this issue behind me as I tackle the daily workload challenges that we face," he said.
State judicial officials notified Pennington this week that they had dismissed a complaint accusing him of muzzling his staff and ordering a lawyer who worked for him not to file a grievance against Solicitor Scarlett Wilson in 2007 and 2009. Pennington described the allegations as "utterly false" and said he had never met or spoken with Desa Ballard, the Columbia attorney who filed the complaint against him in May.
"The accusations were very surprising and disappointing," he said. "However, I am very pleased that an ethics investigation has been completed so that the record can be set straight."
State judicial officials have tossed out ethics complaints against 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and Public Defender Ashley Pennington after finding no evidence to support allegations that their conduct undermined the pursuit of justice.
Wilson, chief prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties, said she was not surprised by the decision because the complaints were baseless.
"I am grateful for the outpouring of support from friends, colleagues and constituents who saw this attack for what it was: a political smear," she said.
Pennington could not be reached for comment after the findings were made public late Tuesday.
Columbia lawyer Desa Ballard and attorney Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach filed complaints against Wilson with the state Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel earlier this year, alleging ethical missteps in the handling of evidence and criminal defendants. Ballard's complaint also accused Pennington of muzzling his staff's criticism of the solicitor and requiring them to consult with him before alerting state court officials to any alleged misconduct by her office - charges he strongly denied.
Frederick is president of the S.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Ballard is a veteran attorney who also teaches college courses on professional ethics and responsibility.
The complaints were dismissed this month following investigations by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the state Commission of Lawyer Conduct, which consists of 34 South Carolina attorneys and 16 members of the general public, convened, according to documents released Tuesday.
In a written statement, Wilson said the finding affirms that she and her staff did not commit ethical lapses. She said her office is committed to "seeking justice through vigorous enforcement of the law in a reasonable, honest and efficient manner."
"Several things are important to remember about the claims," she stated. "Most of them stem from cases that were handled long ago in Circuit Court. Most did not directly involve me. None of the judges who actually knew and experienced these cases - the judges who actually lived and presided over them - has ever made a finding of prosecutorial misconduct."
Frederick was out of town and could not be reached for comment. Ballard said she was grateful the commission took the time to look into the allegations she raised about Wilson's office.
"I felt it needed to be looked into in depth because what I saw appeared to be a pattern of withholding evidence," she said. "If the commission is satisfied with the solicitor's response, then I am satisfied as well."
Several of the allegations in the complaints dealt with prosecutors' failure to turn over evidence to defense attorneys before trials. Ballard also raised concerns about an assistant prosecutor who was caught communicating with a cousin who was sitting on a jury during a 2007 murder trial. The prosecutor was not involved in the case and insisted he didn't discuss the proceedings. But the Supreme Court suspended him from practicing law for six months.
Wilson maintained that all of the matters had already been well hashed over by the courts with no finding of prosecutorial misconduct.
Michelle Suggs, a defense attorney involved in one of the cases, a 2007 murder trial in Charleston, said she was surprised that it was cited in one of the complaints. No one contacted her beforehand to get her thoughts on the matter, she said.
Suggs said a prosecutor on the case - not Wilson - failed to tell her there were indications a key witness was vacillating on her account of what happened. Though the judge found no evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, Suggs said she was concerned enough about the prosecution's omission that she contacted an outside ethics expert. The expert told her the judge was right, she said.
Wilson later approached her, conceded the situation could have been handled better and pledged to conduct more training to tighten up the discovery process - which she did, Suggs said. "I thought it was handled appropriately," she said.
The formal complaints against Wilson followed a volley of criticism that erupted last year after she questioned a state Supreme Court justice's rant at a conference about unethical prosecutors. She led an unsuccessful effort by 13 solicitors to have Justice Donald Beatty barred from considering their cases or ruling on grievances against prosecutors.
Other Charleston defense attorneys said they weren't pleased with Frederick and the S.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers for going after Wilson. Defense attorney Andy Savage, a founding member of the association, said he is no longer participating in the organization as a result.
"Prosecutorial misconduct is a violation of our rules and should be forcefully admonished," he said. "So should false, political or erroneous accusations of wrongdoing of any member of the court system."
Former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, now a defense lawyer, likened the move to "a smear campaign," and said innocent people like Wilson and Pennington should not be "accused of ethical breaches they didn't do."
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