COLUMBIA — The state Supreme Court ruled that 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe may continue his Statehouse corruption probe through the use of a state grand jury, sending a stinging rebuke to Attorney General Alan Wilson.
In a 26-page decision Wednesday, the court said Pascoe has the clear authority to continue holding the power over the probe, discounting Wilson’s attempt to wrestle it back.
The key finding affirmed that since Wilson had made Pascoe his appointed substitute, control of the investigation was to stay in Pascoe’s hands throughout.
“Since we find Pascoe was acting with the authority of the Attorney General when he signed the initiation of the state grand jury investigation, we hold the initiation was lawful and valid,” the justices wrote in a 4-1 decision. “Because we find Pascoe lawfully authorized the initiation of the state grand jury investigation, the Attorney General’s purported termination of Pascoe after the initiation of the state grand jury was ineffective.”
Wilson recused himself from the case due to an unspecified conflict of interest involving unidentified Statehouse lawmakers. He later claimed Pascoe illegally circumvented the Attorney General’s Office by attempting to use the state grand jury to investigate corruption claims. The lawmakers’ names are redacted in a State Law Enforcement Division investigation report.
The court affirmed that once Wilson had stepped out of the case for whatever reason, he was out for the duration.
“We find Pascoe has proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the Attorney General’s Office in its entirety was recused from the redacted legislators investigation, and Pascoe was vested with the full authority to act as the attorney general for the purpose of the investigation,” the ruling said.
The lone dissenting opinion came from Justice John Cannon Few, who said the attorney general — as the state’s top prosecutor — still decides prosecution matters wherever they fall in the state.
Few quoted the state constitution in saying the attorney general is the chief prosecuting officer of the state with authority to supervise the prosecution of all criminal cases in courts of record. He added it is his opinion “ ‘the chief prosecuting officer of the State with authority to supervise the prosecution of all criminal cases’ has the power to remove an appointed prosecutor — even one to whom he had previously given complete discretion for the prosecution.”
The ruling came nearly four weeks after Pascoe argued in front of the high court that Wilson launched a “cynical ploy” against him by having him thrown off the case over alleged document leaks and prosecutorial overreach. But the roots of the dispute go back months, including earlier this winter when Pascoe filed a motion for the court to intervene. In March, Wilson called Pascoe “tainted” in a press conference about his termination, setting a tone of name-calling and heated rhetoric that continued with the release of emails and text messages involving a Wilson staffer attempting to politicize the situation.
Pascoe issued a statement shortly after the decision was released, saying he was out of state but was still following the issue and is pleased with the outcome.
“I am gratified by the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision today,” his note said. “I’m currently in Virginia dealing with a family illness, but expect to return to South Carolina tomorrow to meet with (SLED) Chief (Mark) Keel and his agents to resume work on this matter.”
Wilson’s office said, “We respect the court’s decision and will abide by it.”
John Freeman, University of South Carolina School of Law professor emeritus, said the court acted with independence and courage in its decision that went against the highest elected prosecutor in the state.
“The Supreme Court is showing leadership here today,” Freeman said. “Make no mistake, these are judges elected by legislators. This is an investigation into legislators, as far as I can tell, and they’re green-lighting it.”
Freeman said he is debating whether he will file, in his position as a legal ethicist, an official complaint against Wilson for calling Pascoe “tainted.” He maintains the accusation will affect any possible, future charges from the investigation.
“One reason I cringed when I saw Wilson making those gratuitous slurs against Pascoe was because what he’s doing is providing ammunition for people who will be targets of that investigation,” Freeman said. “Why is the attorney general providing them ammunition?”
The ruling mirrors some of the justices’ questioning during the June 16 court hearing, which centered around Wilson’s authority to sideline Pascoe and the extent of Pascoe’s powers as special prosecutor.
Former USC law professor Jay Bender believes that when Pascoe’s investigation continues, it will be limited to lawmakers in the redacted portion of the SLED report, not going beyond that scope.
“I think there is a lot of speculation about why this fight took place at all,” Bender said, adding the result did clarify the law. “I don’t think Pascoe would ever go on a fishing expedition, but he has clear authority over two members of the General Assembly.”
While the SLED report identifying the lawmakers under review is blacked out, The Post and Courier has learned the document cites state Rep. Rick Quinn, a Lexington Republican, and state Rep. Jim Merrill, a Charleston Republican. Both have maintained that they have done nothing improper.
The court, in its ruling, said it is unclear whether there are further investigations beyond those involving the redacted portion of the report.