COLUMBIA (AP) — South Carolina’s chief prosecutor used a state police investigation into an ethics complaint against House Speaker Bobby Harrell to try to intimidate the powerful Charleston Republican into supporting legislation that would create a public integrity unit, an employee of the speaker testified Friday.
During his own time on the stand, Attorney General Alan Wilson said he didn’t threaten Harrell and was only trying to get the bill passed.
The testimony came during a hearing connected to the State Grand Jury’s consideration of ethics allegations against Harrell. The speaker’s attorneys are seeking to have Wilson removed from the case, citing what they characterize as inappropriate and threatening behavior in a conversation over the pending bill.
Circuit Judge Casey Manning said he would likely rule on that request next week.
Harrell’s chief of staff testified that, at Wilson’s request, he had a private meeting in which the prosecutor tried to intimidate and threaten the speaker’s office into supporting a bill to create a multi-agency, public integrity unit to investigate ethics charges.
“He told me that he had friends with deep pockets, and they could make this an issue if he asked them to,” Brad Wright testified, saying Wilson stood up and pounded on his desk during the meeting. “That scared me. … I thought that was a threat.”
Wright said he went back and told Harrell about the meeting.
“He said, ‘Brad it’s going to be OK. You just got threatened,'” Wright said. “And then he corrected himself and said, ‘Well, I just got threatened, but it’s going to be OK.”
Wilson mentioned SLED’s ongoing inquiry, Wright said, saying the prosecutor referenced the proposal that Harrell come out in favor of the public integrity bill as an “olive branch.”
The public integrity unit was stripped from overall ethics reform legislation, which lawmakers are still considering. Debate on a separate measure has stalled.
Wilson, meanwhile, said he typically speaks with lawmakers about pending legislation and only met with Wright, not his boss, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, given the fact that SLED was investigating Harrell.
“I did not promise him anything,” Wilson said. “I did not threaten him.”
The ethics allegations stem from a complaint filed by the South Carolina Policy Council. The libertarian think tank says Harrell used his office to boost his finances by using influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business and also takes issue with Harrell appointing his brother to a committee that screens judicial candidates.
When the complaint was brought to him, Wilson said he opted to forward it to SLED rather than the House Ethics Committee — which typically handles ethics complaints against its members — because the employees of that body would likely have conflicts in investigating Harrell, the head of that chamber.
On Friday, Wilson reiterated that he involved SLED only to avoid potential conflicts, not because he wanted to antagonize Harrell.
“What I did with the SLED referral wasn’t personal,” Wilson said. “It was just my job.”
After their investigation, state police sent what Wilson’s office has called a “voluminous” report to the prosecutor. His office is currently in the process of presenting the matter to the State Grand Jury, which will consider whether or not to indict Harrell.
By law, matters are presented to the State Grand Jury in secret, but Manning said the law also requires that hearings like the one that occurred Friday should be open to the public. The judge said he agreed with an argument from media attorney Jay Bender, who said only matters presented directly to the State Grand Jury need to be secret, not hearings over how the case should move forward.
Harrell has previously characterized the allegations against him as a baseless attack driven by a “personal and political vendetta.” Speaking with reporters after Friday’s hearing, he said he was glad to have the matter open to the public and called on Wilson to release state investigators’ findings.
“I believe that SLED report will tell everybody everything and the truth and will exonerate me and get all of this behind us,” Harrell said. “I’m asking the attorney general to release the SLED report immediately.”