COLUMBIA, SC — Officials of five statewide citizen activist and open-government groups Thursday decried a secret effort by House Speaker Bobby Harrell get a state judge to disqualify Attorney General Alan Wilson as prosecutor in the State Grand Jury investigation of Harrell’s possible misuse of campaign funds.
Without public notice, Harrell’s defense team asked Judge Robert Hood to disqualify Wilson and then appoint another prosecutor to handle the case.
Wilson is the state’s top elected prosecutor. Harrell is one of the most powerful people in state government.
“This is like communist North Korea or the old Soviet Union,” said Common Cause of South Carolina head John Crangle, mentioning two totalitarian nations known for their secret court systems.
Crangle said he sent an email to Hood on Thursday after reading in The State newspaper about a possible closed-door hearing. He said the email asks that a Common Cause lawyer be heard before Hood would issue a secret order to close the hearing and consider disqualifying Wilson as prosecutor. At this point, Crangle said, he believes any hearings should be open and Wilson should stay on the case.
The State emailed Hood earlier in the week asking the judge to notify The State in advance of any hearing and pointing out that the U.S. and S.C. Constitutions require courts to be open. Hood has not replied.
The State newspaper disclosed the existence of Harrell’s secret effort late Wednesday on its Internet site and published an account in Thursday’s newspaper. Wilson later confirmed the report and issued a statement saying his office would fight for an open hearing and to stay on the case.
Although State Grand Jury investigations are by law secret, a hearing about whether Wilson should be prosecutor would not be part of that investigation.
Besides Common Cause, leaders of other groups and excerpts from their statements Thursday were:
• Dana Beach of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League said, “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 S.C.’s image at a time when we can least afford another national embarrassment.”
Ashley Landess of the S.C. Policy Council said, “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 doors close to protect powerful politicians.”
• Talbert Black of the S.C. Campaign for Liberty said, “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 this 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.”
• The S.C. League of Women Voters’ JoAnne Day and Lynn Teague, who said in part: “We can ask that actions outside the internal deliberations of the State Grand Jury be handled with the maximum possible openness ... .”
Crangle also said in his group’s statement about Harrell: “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, and we know of no cause.”
Wilson did not initiate the State Grand Jury investigation into Harrell’s alleged misuse of campaign funds on his own. By state law, the SLED chief, Mark Keel, also had to sign off on the investigation. SLED is the state’s investigative arm.
The matter began in 2012, when Crangle and Landess began urging Wilson to investigate the legality of Harrell reimbursing himself about $300,000 from his campaign account to fly his private plane on state business. The House Ethics Committee declined to take up their complaint, Crangle said.
Finally, in 2013, Wilson said he would ask SLED to investigate the matter. In January, after months of investigation and a final SLED report, Wilson announced he would seek to empanel a State Grand Jury and present them with the SLED report. The State Grand Jury has broad investigative powers, including that of subpoena, and can probe into Harrell’s affairs beyond the SLED investigation.
At that time, Harrell said he was surprised and angered that Wilson would set a State Grand Jury in motion.
Harrell told reporters that officials had told him that Wilson would not convene a State Grand Jury.
Harrell also asked that the SLED report be made public – even though at that time it was, or soon would be, part of the closed grand jury proceedings.
Crangle, who said the result of a secret hearing might be that Hood would disqualify Wilson and appoint a prosecutor who would go easy on Harrell, said Thursday that any hearing about whether to remove Wilson “is strictly procedural. It doesn’t go to the merits of the case. This is about politicians trying to protect themselves.”