COLUMBIA— South Carolina’s top prosecutor has the authority to investigate House Speaker Bobby Harrell, the state’s highest court ruled Wednesday, saying Attorney General Alan Wilson properly empaneled a state grand jury to consider allegations the powerful Charleston Republican abused his power for personal benefit.
The ruling overturned a lower court’s decision earlier this year to halt the prosecutor’s investigation. Wilson had been appealing a decision by Circuit Judge Casey Manning, who said Wilson hadn’t shown any criminal evidence against Harrell and also ruled that legislative ethics panels — which are only empowered to investigate civil allegations — must first deal with allegations against state lawmakers before prosecutors can be involved.
The court unanimously disagreed with Manning, saying that Wilson’s prosecutorial power operates separately from the legislative ethics process.
“The House Ethics Committee’s concurrent civil regulatory authority does not affect the attorney general’s authority to initiate a criminal investigation in any way, whether or not there is a referral, or even a pending House investigation,” the court wrote.
During arguments last month, Harrell’s attorneys said Manning was right to halt the probe. In defense of their case, prosecutors said the fact that Wilson had asked state police to investigate the speaker, coupled with his subsequent decision to present those findings to a state grand jury, indicate the presence of more than just civil ethics allegations against Harrell.
Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council — a libertarian-leaning, pro-limited-government think tank — initially accused Harrell of using his powerful position for personal benefit, including getting a permit for his pharmaceutical business and appointing his brother to a judicial-candidate screening committee.
Landess ultimately took her allegations to Wilson.
In circuit court, Harrell’s attorneys also argued Wilson should be removed from the case, saying the prosecutor tried to intimidate the speaker into supporting pending legislation while the state police investigation into the ethics case was ongoing. In their ruling, the justices said the lower court must now rule on that matter.
Harrell, House speaker since 2005, has characterized the allegations and investigation as politically motivated. In a statement, the speaker said he was disappointed by the ruling but reiterated his position that Wilson should be removed from the case.
“The only thing we originally asked the court was for a fair and impartial prosecutor to be put in charge of this matter,” Harrell said.
By law, state grand jury proceedings are conducted in private, but Manning held two public hearings before issuing his ruling. During last month’s hearing, Chief Justice Jean Toal criticized prosecutors for talking publicly about their inquiry, saying Wilson’s decision to go public with his intention to pursue a state grand jury indictment was the first such case she’d ever heard.
In a footnote to Wednesday’s ruling, the high court said future hearings about state grand jury matters should be held in private, between judges and attorneys only.
Wilson’s office declined to comment on the ruling.