Into the spotlight

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson surprised his son, Michael (wearing jersey), last week with tickets to a Gamecocks basketball game with Wilson's lifelong friend, Thad Westbrook. Sporting events are one way Wilson, a rabid University of South Carolina fan, spends time with friends and family.

As a winter storm barreled toward South Carolina a year ago, Alan Wilson gathered 1,500 pages of secret documents, piled more than a foot high, and left his office.

Driving home that arctic February day, he carried evidence that House Speaker Bobby Harrell - a friend and fellow Republican, one who rivaled Gov. Nikki Haley in state power politics - had committed criminal violations of ethics laws.

Wilson, the nation's youngest attorney general, was in his first elected office.

Two months earlier, just days before Christmas, a State Law Enforcement Division file landed on his desk in Columbia. Wilson and SLED's chief agreed the evidence justified a trip to the state grand jury.

But then the dark clouds of politics burst open.

Harrell accused Wilson, the state's top prosecutor, of abusing his office to advance his political career. Harrell's chief of staff alleged Wilson tried to convey a threat to the speaker. Wilson received hate mail. Friends shunned him.

"There was zero room for mistakes," he recalls realizing.

As the winter storm hit, Wilson headed to his basement, with its Man Cave sign, home to his recliners and Gamecock footballs, a place he normally went to relax. This time, he closed the door behind him and spread documents across the carpet, covering it.

Wilson worked up to 18 hours a day. He barely slept.

Five days later, he returned to work with a full beard and a fire of determination.

"This was not a case about mistakes and misunderstandings of the law," he says. "It was intentional violation of the law."

The man who pushed the prosecution of Harrell, a political insider, is himself the quintessential political insider. Look at how he met his wife.

A senior TV news reporter in Columbia, Jennifer Miskewicz covered U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's first campaign for Congress in 2001. When it ended, the newly elected congressman hinted, "You need to meet my son."

A smart and beautiful blonde, she blew it off as flattery. But shortly after, while she was covering another political event, Rep. Wilson approached her, his oldest son in tow.

"Meet my son," he said. "He's single, 28 and finishing law school."

Alan Wilson's face flushed bright red. But later, Jennifer watched him work the room. Even back then, years before he ran for elected office, Wilson seemed so at ease in the political world.

Now 41, Wilson still works rooms that way, basking in wholesome Eagle Scout stereotypes his father insisted on: public servant, Republican, Army man, husband, father in a pew his family has filled for six generations.

"That's genuinely who Alan is," Jennifer Wilson says.

With that aura, elected the country's youngest attorney general, he catapulted into the spotlight during his first term. From South Carolina's particularly powerful Attorney General's Office, he's pushed the ethics prosecutions of Harrell and Lt. Gov. Ken Ard within his own party, fought to uphold the state's gay marriage ban and vowed ethics and judicial reform once the Legislature convenes Tuesday.

A rambunctious kid with a major Spider-Man fixation, Wilson grew up in the Boy Scouts and became the straight arrow people know today, a man who runs on his treadmill watching History Channel shows about the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I hear people refer to him as a Boy Scout, and it's actually true," says Thad Westbrook, an attorney and judge's son who met Wilson when they were Cub Scouts. "It's how he approaches everything."

"He can be a little square sometimes," his wife agrees. "But Alan thrives on helping people."

Then again, when your dad is U.S. Rep Joe Wilson and he hollers, "You lie!" at President Barack Obama in front of Congress the day after you announce your first bid for elected office, it's hard not to get lost in the shadows.

To grasp Wilson is to know the twin tragedies his mother, Roxanne, endured as a young woman. Her brother and husband both were killed in military helicopter accidents. Both were 28. Both died in August. Both were captains, one in the Army, one a Marine.

They died four years apart.

Wilson's father, Michael McCrory, had returned home from combat in Vietnam when his helicopter crashed. Roxanne returned to Columbia with her fatherless 2-year-old boy.

She knew well the risks of military service. A Japanese sniper had shot her own father in World War II. His legs paralyzed, Julian Dusenbury battled civilian life in a wheelchair, served in the General Assembly and raised his children.

After she returned to Columbia, Roxanne's brother was killed in Greece.

Yet, she also reconnected with Joe Wilson, a man she'd met at a Republican teen camp. For her little boy, their ensuing marriage meant having a second father. Joe Wilson adopted him and was careful to celebrate McCrory, ensuring the young boy prayed for his biological father and kept a photo of "Daddy Mike" at his bedside.

"Son," Joe Wilson would say, "some boys don't have dads to love them. God gave you two daddies who love you with all of their hearts."

By then, Joe Wilson had waded deeply into Republican politics. Six years after marrying Roxanne, he ran for the S.C. Senate and won, serving until he was elected to the U.S. House where he still serves.

His political ascent meant Alan Wilson and the three brothers who came after him grew up being dragged to Rotary Club meetings, campaign stops and endless speeches.

"I hated it," Alan recalls.

Mostly, he hated missing Saturday morning cartoons.

Yet, it became part of who they were, although Rep. Wilson concedes, "There was a level of enticement with ice cream."

The boys grew up on campaign stages, their lives filled with names like Strom Thurmond, Floyd Spence and Jim Edwards. "I wanted my sons to see the extraordinary people I got to be involved with," Rep. Wilson says.

He and Roxanne also insisted all four join the ROTC and the Boy Scouts. Today, all are Eagle Scouts and all served in the military. "He drilled into us public service, public service," Alan Wilson says.

The younger Wilson went on to law school, clerked for the late Circuit Judge Marc Westbrook and "fell madly in love with the courtroom." He also joined the S.C. Army National Guard and, shortly after Saddam Hussein's capture, was deployed overseas.

He was stationed in Iraq for one year and one month. An intelligence officer, he mostly led convoys.

In a single 24-hour period, he came under sniper fire and then an explosive device destroyed a truck behind him. Shrapnel blasted through his Humvee, piercing the windshield just over his driver's shoulder. They all escaped.

Wilson pulls up photos on his computer showing the fiery explosion. "Otherwise, it was a pretty vanilla year," he says, grinning.

Mostly, his time in Iraq taught him to appreciate things like running water. Wilson had never seen a man squat over a hole just feet away from water where a young girl drank. He'd never seen barefoot kids in 120-degree heat, nothing but desert in all directions. He'd never seen a broken leg mean a lifelong deformity.

At one point, he told a chaplain, "I hate this."

"One day," the man assured, "you'll look back and see these as the best days of your life."

He was right.

"We are such a spoiled nation," says Wilson, today a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard. "Now I try not to take even the simplest things in life for granted."

If Wilson grew up in the political world, he became an adult in the Attorney General's Office. He interned there and served as assistant attorney general. Henry McMaster, now lieutenant governor, hired the young attorney to tackle criminal prosecutions.

"He's an excellent lawyer with enormous determination. He's fearless," McMaster says. "Nothing will stop him from doing the right thing."

But after Wilson came home from Iraq, a few folks suggested Wilson run for attorney general when McMaster didn't seek re-election. At 36, he held his first campaign meeting in Thad Westbrook's living room with a few friends. Wilson, a man who still makes his bed with hospital corners, arrived with a formal presentation about campaign structure, fundraising and odds of winning.

"It seemed like an uphill battle," Westbrook recalls.

Yet, he ran. The Wilsons' daughter, Anna Grace, was born on the campaign trail, which left his wife, Jennifer, to raise their toddler, Michael, and the newborn virtually alone.

"At times, my goal was just to survive," Jennifer says.

One Saturday before Wilson headed out to give a speech, his wife looked at him with an expression parents of young children know well.

"I can't keep both of these children. You need to take one with you," she said. "Pick one."

He walked into a roomful of 80 Republican women with Anna Grace strapped to his chest in a Baby Bjorn.

Yet in some ways, the toughest challenge was the often-lobbed accusation that he only had a shot because of his father's political status. He saw it differently: "You inherit some of your parents' friends. But you inherit all of their enemies."

Perhaps it was naive to think pursuing ethics charges against such a powerful politician wouldn't get personal.

Wilson knew Harrell supporters would be angry when he agreed to send the case to the state grand jury. But he says he didn't expect the lengths they'd take "to derail the investigation and to destroy me personally."

State Rep. James Smith, a Democrat, met Wilson in the National Guard. Despite party divides, Smith became Wilson's attorney and weathered the storm beside him.

"He had a sense of duty," Smith says. "This transcended politics, transcended party divisions. I always had a great deal of respect for his intellect, his work ethic and his character."

At times, stress during the Harrell fight led them to wax philosophical about the meaning of elected office - and potentially losing it in the face of mounting criticism. (Harrell didn't respond to requests to comment for this story.)

"I don't think everybody fully appreciated the pressure he was under," Smith says.

Wilson was playing politics. Wilson was abusing his office. Wilson had no evidence. Wilson had admitted his own campaign finance filing errors. So flew the range of accusations against him.

The attorney general couldn't respond. But he could change the narrative. So last summer, when it looked like a judge might remove him from the case, Wilson handed it off to 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, a Democrat. That meant forgoing the state grand jury in favor of a county one.

"It was a gamble," Wilson says. "I basically abandoned the most powerful investigative tool in the state."

It worked. Harrell was indicted on nine counts. In October, he pleaded guilty to six counts of misusing campaign funds for personal benefit.

Wilson won re-election in November, pulling in 60 percent of the vote to defeat Democrat Parnell Diggs.

"He was vindicated," Smith says. "It should give the people of South Carolina greater appreciation for who he is and his commitment to seeing justice done when our institutions of government are faced with these very compromising allegations of public corruption at the highest levels."

Harrell avoided prison time by agreeing to probation terms that include talking to authorities and testifying against other lawmakers if the net widens.

Are more charges coming? Wilson declines to answer.

But he will push ethics and judicial reforms as a result."There will be a time when I'll be able to talk openly and freely about what I dealt with within my own party and within the judiciary," Wilson says.

Wilson was at a Rotary Club meeting recently when a man stood to launch a diatribe accusing him of wasting resources defending the state's gay marriage ban.

Even after two federal judges ruled it unconstitutional, a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt same-sex marriages in the state and gay couples began to marry Nov. 19, Wilson has continued to appeal.

It's generated much criticism that he either is seeking political points from social conservatives, or he is personally opposed to gay marriage and is using his office to that end.

The Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, a progressive Charleston minister, compared Wilson to southerners of yore who invoked states' rights to justify discrimination. "It's a living history project with Attorney General Alan Wilson," Rutledge posted on Facebook.

One of Wilson's key legal opponents in the battle is John Nichols, a Columbia attorney involved in both of the state's historic same-sex marriage cases. He called Wilson a decent person with a professional staff.

"As we have represented our respective sides in this case, all of the lawyers have worked hard to keep it from devolving into personal attacks and instead have engaged in reasoned debates about how the rule of law governs the outcome," Nichols says.

Attorney Malissa Burnette, an attorney for South Carolina Equality who led a Charleston case that opened doors to legal same-sex marriage, dubbed Wilson "politically savvy."

"I applaud his tenacity in the Harrell prosecution and the revelation of the underlying need for ethics reform in South Carolina," she says. "I also believe he is fully aware of his role as a Don Quixote in the fight over marriage equality, yet he is willing to waste our tax dollars to appease certain groups."

Christian conservatives, however, widely applaud Wilson's defense. So does McMaster: "Weaker men would bend."

Wilson contends he is defending the state constitution.

"My job is to represent the state and its constitution. I'm duty-bound to defend that," he insists. "I have to exhaust every legal option. This hasn't even gone to the Supreme Court yet."

Yet, he ducks a question about his own views on gay marriage. It's not the issue, he says.

His family has long attended an historic Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, a denomination that deems homosexuality a sin. But he insists he has gay friends and family. "And I won't say anything derogatory about the lifestyle they've chosen."

Wilson starts 2015 with far more political hope than last year when he had sequestered himself in his basement.

"I have a renewed sense of purpose," he says, rattling off the ethics, judicial and other reforms he plans to push.

Sure, he was just re-elected. But politicos want to know: Does he have eyes on higher office? First he demurs.

"I didn't run for attorney general to be something else."

Then he grins and leans forward in his chair.

"We're going to see how this term plays out. You never know what the future holds."

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.