COLUMBIA - Legal and political watchers decried a ruling in the case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell Monday, saying that a decision to send an ethics-related case to a committee of Harrell's fellow lawmakers sets a dangerous precedent.
In a much-anticipated decision, Richland Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning ruled that allegations against Harrell, R-Charleston, must first be heard by the House Ethics Committee and cannot be pursued by a state grand jury. Harrell has been accused of using his campaign funds for personal use, including funds that paid for office-related trips on his personal airplane.
Critics and lawyers following the case said it was a rare, if unprecedented step for a judge to halt a grand jury investigation. No charges have been filed in the case and South Carolina's attorney general is given wide latitude to investigate criminal allegations under the state's Constitution.
But Manning called the use of the state grand jury "premature" because the House ethics panel had not yet heard the case.
Attorney General Alan Wilson had referred the case to a state grand jury earlier this year after state police completed a 10-month criminal investigation. A judge is also required to sign an order that the case can move forward to a grand jury.
Manning said there was no evidence of criminal conduct in the case.
"Despite multiple requests, the Attorney General has failed to offer or present to the Court any evidence or allegations which are criminal in nature. Therefore, the Court is left only with . allegations of ethics violations propounded by a citizen's letter." The allegations against Harrell must be heard by the House Ethics Committee, Manning ruled. He wrote that neither the grand jury "nor any other investigative agency shall take any further action" on the ethics-related allegations until the House Ethics Committee either decides on the case or refers the matter to the Attorney General.
In a previous decision, Manning had ruled that conservative activist John Rainey could not file a criminal complaint against Gov. Nikki Haley, who was a House member at the time. Those same rules apply, Manning wrote in his decision.
Former Attorney General Charlie Condon said the judge made a factual error that he should correct. While the criminal allegations are in dispute - Harrell says that all of his conduct is legal and the allegations against him are politically motivated - the judge cannot say that criminal allegations have not been made. In fact, much of a May 2 hearing on the issue was dedicated to the fact that Wilson believes Harrell has committed crimes, not ethics violations.
Without the ability of the attorney general to step in, "legislators may have immunity from prosecution," Wilson told the judge during the hearing. He said the House Ethics Committee deals only with civil matters.
The state embraced such powers for the attorney general after the 1990s Operation Lost Trust scandal in which legislators were caught taking massive bribes in the form of campaign contributions. "Public trust was lost in all branches of government," Wilson said.
Condon said that he hopes Wilson asks the judge to reconsider his ruling. "I just have to think this is an oversight or an honest mistake," Condon said.
Wilson could ask Manning to reconsider his decision or could appeal to the state's Supreme Court. Condon and others said they fear what would happen if the case is not overturned.
"It would create special privileges for members of the General Assembly for possible criminal activity," Condon said.
Wilson said in an interview at his office that the case was far from over, promising to appeal. He declined to be specific but also said that other options were available to his office to pursue the case.
"Everything is on the table. This case is not over, this investigation is not over and we have other avenues," he said. "There are lot of avenues that people don't know about that were considering."
Harrell slammed the attorney general for releasing a statement in the case before Manning's ruling had been officially filed with the court and released to the public. He said it was further evidence that Wilson's motives were political, as he has contended.
"We have said from the beginning that this entire investigation has been politically driven. The Attorney General's statement this afternoon confirms that fact," Harrell said in a statement. "The constitution and state statutes are clear on these issues."
"Rather than discussing the merits of the case, the Attorney General continues to play politics."
Critics say it amounts to a double standard for lawmakers over anyone else who could be investigated by the attorney general.
Harrell's attorneys have argued that the House speaker is not seeking immunity from prosecution, only that the rules and procedures be followed in an ethics-related case.
The complaint against Harrell was originally brought by the small government watchdog group South Carolina Policy Council. The group's president, Ashley Landess, said she has no plans to pursue a complaint with the House Ethics Committee. She believes that House members and staffers beholden to the powerful House speaker would not impartially review the case.
She also said that Manning was wrong on the facts. She has alleged public corruption - not ethics violations which carry civil penalties.
"I cannot believe that a judge shut down a grand jury investigation," Landess said. "I just can't believe it's happened."
She said she fears what will happen if the ruling stands and committees made up of legislators are the only bodies that can rule on ethics-related issues.
"This is not an exaggeration, public corruption - it's open season," she said. "Because the ethics act is where all of this is governed. Bottom line, corruption (will be) what they (legislators) say it is."
Wilson also agreed that the judge's ruling set a bad precedent.
"Basically a judge today said that members of the General Assembly have criminal immunity for acts of public corruption," he said.
"At the end of the day the people of South Carolina are going to be ticked off. This is just a battle in a protracted war for justice. I'm not disheartened. Frankly I feel very good about long term prospects of this office being able to do its job under the Constitution."
Condon said that Landess was acting as a "mere tipster." Her allegations should not prohibit the attorney general from pursuing the case, he said.
John Crangle, an attorney and Harrell critic who is director of the advocacy group Common Cause, said he has already written a letter to Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justice Costa Pleicones. He has asked both judges to recuse themselves from the case if it gets that far because Harrell was an open supporter of Toal during the recent election.
He had not yet received a reply. Ultimately, though, he believes Manning's decision will slow the case against Harrell, but not end it.