Columbia, SC — ‘UNPRECEDENTED” has become a far-too-familiar descriptor of the intersection of South Carolina’s statewide elected officials and criminal law.
There was that unprecedented indictment and conviction of a state constitutional officer (Charlie Sharpe, federal corruption charges), which was followed by a second one of each (Thomas Ravenel, federal drug charges).
Then we had that unprecedented ethics fine against a governor (Mark Sanford), followed by an unprecedented decision by the attorney general to review, and agonize over, possible criminal charges against said governor. And then there was the by-now-precedented ethics fine against another statewide official, followed by the also-precedented referral of the matter to the attorney general, which became unprecedented when Lt. Gov. Ken Ard’s case was turned over to the State Grand Jury, which unprecedentedly indicted him. And he unprecedentedly resigned and pleaded guilty.
And now we have Bobby Harrell, whose investigation by the State Grand Jury is unprecedented not because he’s a statewide elected official but because he holds a much more powerful position: speaker of the House.
Mr. Harrell is being investigated for at least one of several ethics charges that have been swirling around him for more than a year, likely the allegation that he converted campaign funds to personal use, reimbursing himself for flights across the state and up and down the east coast on his single-engine Cirrus SR22.
Unlike the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, the speaker doesn’t just wear a purple robe, call the House to order and decide who gets to speak. He decides which committees House members serve on, and signs off on their expense reimbursements. He controls the House’s “personnel, administration and management of facilities,” including employee salaries. He’s even empowered to decide which members of the press are allowed on the House floor.
The speaker appoints members of conference committees, which make or break most important legislation. That means that if the Senate manages to pass an ethics bill this year, he will decide which House members shape its final form — or allow it to die.
One duty of the speaker used to be to suspend House members who were indicted on felony charges. But those suspensions became automatic after then-U.S. Attorney Bart Daniel, who is now Mr. Harrell’s defense attorney, brought criminal corruption charges against 14 House members and two senators.
Also unlike the lieutenant governor, the speaker is elected by the body over which he presides, which means he has tremendous support when he comes into office — and that support only grows once he assumes the powers of the office. It is, therefore, rare that the speaker’s top priorities fail, or that the Legislature does things he adamantly opposes.
Which brings us to the curious attack that Mr. Harrell has decided to launch against Attorney General Alan Wilson. Essentially, Mr. Harrell charges that the attorney general asked the State Grand Jury to investigate him as part of a politically motivated witch hunt.
At an 11 a.m. news conference Tuesday that began at 11:07 and ended abruptly at 11:15 when reporters kept asking him why he wouldn’t release detailed records about his travel expenses, Mr. Harrell spoke of a “blatant smear campaign” that had been allowed to continue for too long. He said he believed Mr. Wilson’s announcement the day before the 2014 legislative session opened “was intended to inflict political damage on me.”
When he repeated the charge, from his Monday news release, that the attorney general’s office notified the media of its action before notifying his attorney, a reporter noted that Mr. Wilson’s office had directly denied that claim. “A reporter called me before I talked to my attorney,” he replied, as if that was the same thing. Which of course it’s not. No one had a chance to ask about his own attorney’s pointed refusal to clear up the earlier discrepancy, telling The Charleston City Paper that it was up to the media to play referee between the claims of his client and the attorney general’s office. Which is sort of breathtaking.
Mr. Harrell insisted again that he had been assured repeatedly by the attorney general’s office that there was nothing to worry about. He wasn’t challenged on that either, but I’m assured that the attorney general’s office is baffled by that claim, insisting that no one has even discussed the case with him, much less given him any sort of assurances.
And then there’s Mr. Harrell’s demand that Mr. Wilson release the SLED report of its 10-month investigation, which he only repeated when reporters told him that the attorney general’s office said state law prohibited its release now that the case has been referred to the Grand Jury.
Several pundits described that as a gutsy move that demonstrates Mr. Harrell’s confidence in his innocence. Certainly it’s designed to give that impression. But it is inconceivable that his attorney hasn’t told him that every attorney general since the inception of the State Grand Jury has interpreted the law to mean nothing of substance can be discussed, much less released to the public, once an investigation has been authorized.
Which is to say that he is repeating his demand knowing full well that it will not be met, that the report will not be released, that none of us will know, until the Grand Jury either indicts him or doesn’t indict him, whether the report demonstrates innocence or guilt. At which point the point will be sort of moot.
Mr. Harrell is of course presumed innocent until proven guilty, and indeed, he hasn’t even been charged with a crime. And he may not be. It’s reasonable to believe that Mr. Wilson does not have sufficient evidence to indict him.
But it’s also reasonable to believe that Mr. Wilson, and SLED Chief Mark Keel, and the professional prosecutors in Mr. Wilson’s office, believe that the evidence they have — and don’t have — points to a serious crime. They could be wrong. But you can be sure that they believe there’s more here than smoke. (Little known fact: Although you can go to prison for lying to the Grand Jury, it’s not a crime to lie to a SLED agent.)
Which brings us back to that idea that this is a witch hunt, driven by some sort of political vendetta Mr. Wilson has against Mr. Harrell.
For months, ever since Mr. Wilson asked SLED to review the allegations, I’ve been told that the attorney general and his staff desperately wanted to be able to conclude that there was nothing here to pursue.
Because, let’s be honest: Alan Wilson isn’t Charlie Condon or (pre-call girl) Eliot Spitzer or, God forbid, Dick Harpootlian — a crusading prosecutor looking to make headlines and take out high-profile targets. And absent that personality type, no rookie attorney general wants to go after one of the most powerful officials in his own political party. From the same faction (mainstream) of his own political party.
And let’s be even more honest, and think back to all that power the speaker has: If you’re someone who needs to get a budget passed and an agenda enacted in order to have something to show for yourself when you run for re-election — that is, someone who depends upon the good graces of the Legislature — you’d have to be certifiable to take a gratuitous swipe at the speaker.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson warned: “When you strike at a king you must kill him.”
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.