Harrell case back on track

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, flanked by his family, speaks with the media after arguments were heard in the South Carolina Supreme Court Tuesday, June 24, 2014, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/ Richard Shiro, File)

It would have been reasonable to conclude that House Speaker Bobby Harrell's ethics case had fallen down a rabbit hole in view of the extended period of judicial silence since the state Supreme Court sent it back to Circuit Court on July 9. So it was good news to learn from Mr. Harrell on Saturday that the case is now going forward.

But it won't be Attorney General Alan Wilson handling the complaint by Ashley Landess of the S.C. Policy Council. Mr. Wilson passed the case off to David Pascoe, solicitor of the First Judicial District for Orangeburg, Dorchester and Calhoun counties.

And the statewide grand jury won't get the case, at least not at this point. The term of the grand jury that had been expected to look into the complaint against Mr. Harrell's use of campaign funds, among other issues, expired on June 30, and the case wasn't transferred to the current grand jury that succeeded it.

Apparently, Mr. Harrell is satisfied with Mr. Pascoe's designation, so presumably that issue is resolved.

And Mr. Harrell has proclaimed victory of a sort, because Mr. Wilson won't head up the prosecution and because his case is no longer scheduled for the statewide grand jury. Mr. Harrell had contended that Mr. Wilson had a political agenda, even though, like the speaker, he is a Republican. Mr. Pascoe, by contrast, is a Democrat.

The complaint alleges that Mr. Harrell improperly used some $300,000 in campaign contributions, mainly to operate his private plane between Charleston and Columbia.

The complaint also alleges that Mr. Harrell used his office for private gain in the process of getting a permit for his pharmaceutical business.

Mr. Harrell says he is innocent of the charges, which he insists were brought as the result of a "personal and political vendetta."

"I have said from the beginning that I violated no law and have only sought an independent prosecutor free of political motives and influence," Mr. Harrell said Saturday. "I hope these events accomplish that."

It's only natural for Mr. Harrell to express relief over changing circumstances that he views as advantageous to his case.

But it's too early for the speaker to break out the champagne. As John Crangle of Common Cause said, in comments to The Associated Press, "A solicitor stepping into Wilson's shoes has the same power Wilson has. He can convene a county grand jury."

So far, there's been no word on why Mr. Wilson, the state's chief prosecutor, decided to pass on the case; why Mr. Pascoe got the assignment; why it took so long for the change to be made public; and, most important, why the case didn't remain with the statewide grand jury, which has been empowered by the Legislature to investigate public corruption charges.

In fact, the S.C. Supreme Court, in its July 9 ruling, said the grand jury had jurisdiction. The court also forbade the attorney general from speaking publicly about the case. Eventually, though, the public should get some answers.

The complaint against the speaker dates from February 2013, and SLED's investigation was completed late that year. To say that it's time for the case to be moving toward a certain resolution is to understate the matter.

So maybe there is a victory for the public interest in the latest development.