Legislators propose appointing prosecutor to probe colleagues (update)

Posted by ANDREW SHAIN on April 10, 2014 

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— S.C. lawmakers want the ability to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate criminal ethics allegations against their colleagues as well as the state’s top political officials.

More than 80 S.C. House members sponsored a bill introduced this week meant to end questions about who would investigate the state’s top prosecutor, the attorney general. The original bill cites language that covers constitutional officers, which includes the governor, and officials who can be removed by the governor.

But some representatives said the bill also could allow them to vote to appoint a special prosecutor over their fellow legislators, instead having the attorney general oversee the case.

If the bill were in effect, the House and Senate could have removed Attorney General Alan Wilson from prosecuting the ethics allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said. Harrell is a accused of misusing campaign money and legislative position for personal gain.

Smith interprets "constitutional officer" to include lawmakers since their positions were created in the state constitution. Harrell, who has asked the court to remove Wilson from prosecuting the case citing a conflict over ethics reform proposals, disagrees. Smith is a campaign attorney fro Wilson.

“Just like members of the Judiciary, members of the General Assembly are not constitutional officers,” said Harrell, who is not a sponsor of the bill. “Representatives of the attorney general’s office are trying to bring me into this debate in an obvious effort to distract from the ethical problems he is currently facing.”

A companion bill was introduced that would remove language from the state constitution that says the attorney general is the chief prosecuting officer in South Carolina.

Questions about who can prosecute allegations against the attorney general were raised in recent news reports about changes in Wilson’s campaign contribution filings, Majority House Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said.

Wilson has not been cited for violations by the S.C. Ethics Commission, which gives candidates time to correct errors without penalties. The attorney general has updated reports, including adding missing contributions, and refunded over-the-limit donations, his campaign said.

Now, the attorney general can assign cases with a potential conflict of interest to a solicitor, Wilson’s office said. A judge also could assign a case to a solicitor to a case that is in the State Grand Jury, the attorney general’s office said.

By Thursday, more than 20 sponsors dropped off the bills, Smith said.

But that won’t not end the possibility of lawmakers taking out the attorney general from prosecuting cases against their colleagues.

Smith said he is working to introduce a new bill that allows the General Assembly to ask for a special prosecutor in ethics cases against public officials, Smith said. That would eliminate conflicts of interest involving the attorney general in prosecuting cases, he said. The new bill would not call for changing to the constitution, he said.

The bill would give more authority to the already powerful legislative branch, said John Crangle, state director for the government watchdog Common Cause.

In the current proposal, the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore would appoint the special prosecutor if approved by the General Assembly.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, said he is not interested in assigning a special prosecutor for cases against legislators. Courson, who sits on the Senate ethics committee, said the attorney general has incentive to avoid ethics violations because he could be voted out of office.

The attorney’s general office said it was not contacted before the original bills were introduced, which is a typical common courtesy.

"We have confidence in the deliberative process of the General Assembly, and believe that members of the House and Senate will ultimately act in the public interest,” said Mark Powell, a spokesman for the attorney general.

Smith said he would run the new proposal by the attorney general’s office.

Chances for passage before the end of the session in June is unlikely but Smith said he wants to get the conversation started.

Smith also said delaying the bill could help end speculation that the bill would have an impact on the Harrell case.

"There are some important issues here," he said. ant issues here," he said.

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