What civic groups are saying about Harrell's move to remove Wilson

March 13, 2014 

From Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council: “A report by The State that Speaker Harrell’s attorneys are trying to get the Attorney General thrown off of Harrell’s case is alarming, and to make matters worse he wants the hearing to be held in private. “Neither scenario should be allowed. Public trust is finally on the rise, largely because the Attorney General agreed to take our complaint into Speaker Harrell’s alleged ethics violations after we raised inherent due process problems that would inevitably arise if we were forced to file it with House Ethics Committee. “It’s worth noting that Harrell raised no concerns about the inherent conflicts in that process, including that he himself controls the staff that would have been tasked with investigating the complaint. “Speaker Harrell has taken every opportunity to exert his extraordinary power to receive special treatment. He even used his power to push a secret bill through full committee that would have literally decriminalized all the ethics violations of which he is accused. He also demanded that the AG release the SLED report after it had been turned over to the Grand Jury and thus became part of the secret process under which the Grand Jury operates. The Speaker knows very well that secrecy exists for a reason – the state Grand Jury handles cases involving children and gang-related crimes. Yet the Speaker fully expected that the secrecy that protects those victims and witnesses be waived for his convenience. But now, the Speaker wants the hearing about the AG’s purported “conflict” to be held in private. That hearing would be a procedural one, and not part of the Grand Jury proceedings – it makes no sense that the hearing would be held in private. “It is the role of the Attorney General to handle Grand Jury cases, and there appears to be no instance in which an Attorney General has been removed from a state Grand Jury case. It is difficult to conceive what the alleged conflict might be, especially since there has been no hint of one so far. “The Speaker certainly deserves the chance to make his case, however weak it may be, but he doesn’t deserve a private hearing. The Attorney General is the public’s advocate, and there are two sides to this matter. Public trust in our state’s judicial system is at its lowest when the doors close to protect powerful politicians. “Citizens have no choice now but to trust those in charge of this process. So far, we’ve been pleasantly surprised that those in charge of this investigation have acted in the public interest. We hope that continues to be the case. The Speaker should receive no special treatment.” From Talbert Black, coordinator of South Carolina Campaign for Liberty: “Wednesday, The State reported that Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell is trying to get a secret judicial proceeding to have the have the Attorney General thrown off his case. If this is true, it will not surprise me. It fits a pattern of behavior. Harrell seems to be trying everything he can to circumvent the due process that we as American citizens cherish because it guarantees every citizen equal treatment under the law. At every turn it seems Harrell has tried to make himself above the law and ask for special treatment. “When allegations first surfaced that Harrell had misused his campaign funds, instead of making full disclosure of his accounts to the public as required by state law, he insisted on maintaining privacy. If he is indeed innocent, as he claims, full disclosure of his campaign accounts would have disproved the allegations and exonerated him. “When his case was turned over to the grand jury, which by law maintains a veil of secrecy over its proceedings, Harrell declared he wanted his case opened to the public. Ironically, the very documents he insisted remain secret when allegations first arose, were part of what he then insisted be disclosed, and still had the power to disclose if he so chose. “Now, as reported by The State, Harrell is requesting a secret hearing to have the Attorney General dismissed from his case. This hearing should be public, as is the normal procedure and constitutionally required. But somehow Harrell again thinks he is special. “Which is it for Mr. Harrell, openness or secrecy? It seems he wants whatever is best for him, regardless of the requirements of the law. “At Palmetto Liberty, we insist that all politicians be subject to the law, no matter what their position. If Harrell is granted a secret hearing to have the Attorney General dismissed from his case it will be a serious breach of our state Constitution, public trust in the judicial process, and the principle of equality under the law. This cannot be allowed to happen.” From John Crangle, Executive Director of Common Cause / South Carolina: “Common Cause/SC opposes holding a secret hearing on any motion to remove Attorney General Alan Wilson from the matter presented to the state grand jury relating to Speaker Harrell’s conduct as a public official and candidate for office. Such a motion would be highly abnormal. The public has an overriding interest in information relating to the Harrell matter which is much greater than any interest in secrecy which might be asserted by Harrell. We also object to any motion to remove Attorney General Wilson from the matter as no cause has been shown at the time, and we know of no such cause.” From JoAnne Day and Lynn Teague, Co-President and Vice President for Issues and Action (respectively), of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina: “The League of Women Voters regards independent investigation as central to effective enforcement of ethics laws that have been enacted to protect the public interest. At present, most complaints against members of the South Carolina General Assembly lack this crucial element. Internal committees of the Senate and House of Representatives handle most cases involving their members, a system that is subject to distortion by serious conflicts of interest. The one dependable mechanism now available to protect the citizens of South Carolina when the ethics of legislators are in question is referral to the Office of the Attorney General. The Attorney General, elected by the people of South Carolina to enforce our laws, can draw on the resources of SLED for professional investigation and can refer cases to the State Grand Jury when appropriate. “The League would prefer a very different system of enforcement to that now available, one in which complaints against legislators would routinely go first to an independent Ethics Commission for investigation and recommendations. The Attorney General would continue to be involved when there is probable cause to believe that there have been criminal violations. We believe that this would serve the public interest far more consistently than the present system of internal investigation of most cases, and at the same time provide more protection for public officials faced with frivolous complaints. However, attempts to incorporate such measures into ethics legislation failed in the Senate earlier this month, and we certainly do not have such a system now. The best that we can hope for at present is that the important role of the Office of the Attorney General is respected and that the process of consideration by that Office and by the State Grand Jury is not subject to manipulation. We can ask that actions outside the internal deliberations of the State Grand Jury be handled with the maximum possible openness, to provide the sunlight that we all know is the best disinfectant in our political system. “And finally, we can ask that as legislation to revise our ethics process moves forward in the General Assembly, legislators take seriously their responsibility to enact a more consistently reliable system of investigation than that available at present, one that can be trusted even when complaints are not referred first to the Office of the Attorney General.” From Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League: “We learned from today's article by John Monk with the State newspaper about the effort by Speaker Harrell's lawyers to remove Attorney General Alan Wilson from the pending ethics investigation. We are concerned about, and object to, the proposed closed door hearing to debate that motion. The gravity of this case requires that it be treated with scrupulous integrity and that decisions about its disposition be completely accessible to the public. A secret hearing would cast a pall of disrepute not only on the outcome of this particular case, but on the process of ethics investigation and enforcement as a whole. Ultimately, this type of clandestine hearing could stain South Carolina's image at a time when we can least afford another national embarrassment.”

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