Court officials accused of ethics errors

9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson (left), and Public Defender Ashley Pennington

A Columbia attorney has called for an investigation into the conduct of 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and Public Defender Ashley Pennington, alleging the pair are guilty of ethical missteps that undermine the pursuit of justice.

Lawyer Desa Ballard filed a complaint this week with the state Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, outlining a list of grievances against the chief prosecutor and defender for Charleston and Berkeley counties. Wilson and Pennington denied the allegations.

Ballard accused Wilson of withholding key evidence from defense attorneys and establishing "an office environment with the attitude 'we do what we can get away with.'"

Ballard described Pennington as a vocal supporter of Wilson who reportedly muzzled his staff's criticism of the solicitor and required them to consult with him before alerting state court officials to any alleged misconduct by her office.

"I regret that the Ninth Circuit criminal prosecution and defense are being affected by what appears to be a pattern of misconduct and I urge your office to look into these matters expeditiously," Ballard stated in the complaint.

Wilson and Pennington insisted they have done nothing wrong. They also questioned why the complaint surfaced in the media before they received a copy and had a chance to respond.

Wilson said the claims leveled at her are "extremely misleading and in some instances outright false," mainly stemming from older cases in which she was not directly involved. None generated complaints at the time, and Ballard is rehashing issues that have long since been resolved, she said.

"The issues raised in the complaint have been addressed by courts in the past," she said. "Moreover, public release of a complaint before an official has the opportunity to respond is inappropriate to say the least. "

Pennington also took issue with the grievance. He said he tries to ensure his office speaks with a single voice in public statements, but he said allegations that he blocked anyone from filing professional misconduct complaints is "utterly ridiculous and false."

State Disciplinary Counsel Lesley M. Coggiola could not be reached for comment on the matter Friday, and it's unclear if an investigation will result from Ballard's complaint.

Ballard cited four cases in respect to Wilson, including a murder prosecution Wilson was involved in before becoming solicitor.

In that case, involving the 2003 rape and stabbing of Julie Jett in West Ashley, Wilson failed to tell defense attorneys before trial that a boyfriend of Jett's roommate had a key to the apartment - information they could have used to raise the possibility that someone other than the suspect had access to commit the crime, Ballard said.

Ballard said Wilson also failed to turn over crime scene notes to the defense before another murder case went to trial in Berkeley County in 2009. And she let Tyrone Winslow Jr. spend two years in jail waiting for a 2012 murder trial though her office had ample witness testimony indicating he had acted in self-defense in stabbing another man in McClellanville two years earlier, the complaint stated.

Lastly, Ballard 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, who also acknowledged regularly texting the trial judge, was not involved in the case at hand and insisted he didn't discuss the proceedings. But the Supreme Court suspended him from practicing law for six months.

"While the attorney was disciplined for that contact," Wilson said Friday, "there was no evidence or finding of prosecutorial misconduct."

As for Pennington, Ballard said she was approached by an attorney in his office who complained that the public defender had directly ordered him not to file misconduct complaints against Wilson in 2007 and 2009.

The attorney, who she would not identify, said Pennington also made clear that his performance evaluation would hinge on him ceasing his public criticism of Wilson and her office.

"You are not to speak or convey in any manner to others comments that are critical of (Scarlett Wilson) or her office, especially regarding their ethics or honesty without gaining my permission first," Pennington stated in a December email to the attorney.

Pennington, however, goes on to say in the email that his directive should not be construed as limiting the attorney's ability to file ethics grievances against prosecutors with state court officials if there is a need.

Ballard included the email in some 70 pages of trial transcripts, articles and other documents she attached to her complaint in support of her position.

Pennington said Friday that filing grievances becomes necessary when the offending lawyer shows an indifference to the ethics rules, but that has not been the case when he has voiced concerns over evidence-sharing and other issues with Wilson and her staff.

"I have not encountered that indifference in the Solicitor's Office," he said in an email. "Over the last seven years, each of the issues or objections I have personally raised with the Solicitor and her staff have been heard and been responded to."

For Wilson, the complaint is the latest chapter in 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.

Soon after, the S.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers asked the state Attorney General's Office to investigate Wilson's office over allegations that prosecutors were not sharing evidence with defense lawyers and other unacceptable practices.

Pennington opposed the association's move to send the letter because, he told the newspaper at the time, he has always worked with the solicitor to iron out their differences.

Attorney General Alan Wilson, no relation to the solicitor, declined the association's request, saying these issues had already been raised in judicial proceedings and resolved by various courts without any finding of prosecutorial misconduct.

Ballard said she has never had legal dealings with Wilson or Pennington, but felt compelled to file the complaint after learning of troubling events that threatened the quality of justice in the 9th Circuit.

A former law clerk with the state Supreme Court, Ballard has practiced law for 31 years and serves as an adjunct professor with the University of South Carolina School of Law. She specializes in professional ethics and responsibility.

"I spend my time defending lawyers, that's mostly what I do.

You have to think long and hard before you file a complaint against another lawyer, and I did. But I felt this was necessary," she said. "My goal is not for anyone to be sanctioned. All I want to see happen is for the laws to be complied with in the future."

But former solicitor and Attorney General Charlie Condon, now a defense lawyer, said he was puzzled by the complaint. He said Pennington is one of most ethical, respected lawyers he knows. He said both Pennington and Wilson run their offices at "extremely high levels of performance and serve their respective duties well.

"This seems meant to tarnish the reputations of two really good attorneys and two really good people," he said.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or