Scoppe: How many more times will Harrell’s friends try to quash ethics probe?

Associate EditorApril 15, 2014 

— SILVIO BERLUSCONI liked to have sex with underage prostitutes and evade income taxes and, perhaps, launder money and perjure himself and commit extortion and who knows what else.

But Mr. Berlusconi was not your ordinary pedophile and tax dodger and who knows what else. He was the powerful prime minister of Italy, serving in the position longer than any other post-World War II leader. So whenever prosecutors brought charges against him, his minions in the Italian Parliament would pass laws to essentially invalidate the charges — shortening the time limit for prosecution to make him immune, for example, and making false accounting illegal only if a damaged party filed a complaint.

He only received a final conviction last year, after his party lost power and no longer could push through new laws to invalidate his charges and, in some cases, convictions.

You’d think he was in a banana republic.

Or South Carolina.

Consider what has happened since S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson asked SLED to investigate criminal allegations that House Speaker Bobby Harrell has converted campaign funds to personal use.

A year ago, one of Mr. Harrell’s top lieutenants convinced the House Judiciary Committee to pass a hot-off-the-presses omnibus ethics bill that decriminalized the ethics law. Once committee members got a chance to study the bill, after the fact, they struck the decriminalization.

Last month, Mr Harrell’s attorneys sought a secret hearing to have Mr. Wilson removed from the case. There was no legal justification or precedent for a secret hearing, and it was an incredible stretch for Circuit Judge Robert Hood even to entertain such a motion. After the effort became public knowledge, the judge suddenly found that he was busy the day he had scheduled the secret hearing, and Circuit Judge Casey Manning opened it to the public and announced he would be handling further matters involving the Harrell investigation.

Judge Manning hasn’t ruled yet on the motion, but the story Mr. Harrell’s attorneys concocted of a vendetta on the attorney general’s part turned out to be shockingly spurious, and the word on the street is that the judge will reject it out of hand.

Just as this legal ploy was unraveling, House leaders started moving on H.4453, a bill Rep. Kirkman Finlay introduced in January to provide legislators immunity for converting campaign funds to personal use, and other campaign crimes, perhaps retroactively.

Earlier this month, Harrell attorney Gedney Howe confirmed to the S.C. Policy Council’s online news publication, The Nerve, that Judge Manning is considering tossing out the entire investigation on the basis that only the House Ethics Committee has jurisdiction. There is no law to support that position, but clearly a Circuit Court judge is taking it seriously.

Audacity squared

Then, in the most audacious move to date, 85 House members last week filed H.5072, which would empower the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct State Grand Jury investigations into the attorney general and other “constitutional officers.” One of the initial sponsors — Wilson campaign attorney and Democratic Rep. James Smith — said that term also covers legislators, which means it would allow the speaker and president pro tempore to stop any attorney general investigations of legislators.

Of course the bill wouldn’t actually accomplish that because our state constitution names the attorney general as “the chief prosecuting officer of the State with authority to supervise the prosecution of all criminal cases in courts of record.” So the sponsors — led by Kris Crawford, against whom Mr. Wilson’s predecessor, Henry McMaster, brought tax-evasion charges in 2010 — also filed H.5073 to remove that language from the constitution.

If that passed, not only would the speaker and president pro tempore be able to stop any attorney general investigations, or initiate investigations into the attorney general, but the Legislature would be free to strip attorneys general of all power. The House unanimously agreed to bypass the committee process for both measures and place them on the calendar for immediate debate, an extraordinary thing to do for anything other than congratulatory resolutions and local legislation.

Let’s recap: I count five attempts in a year by Mr. Harrell’s friends to intimidate the attorney general or else quash first a SLED investigation and now a Grand Jury investigation. Which seems like a lot for someone who insists he hasn’t committed any crimes — or even violated any non-criminal provisions of the ethics law.

Misunderstandings?

But I count wrong. It’s all a big misunderstanding. Or a series of big misunderstandings.

Last year’s ethics decriminalization effort was a drafting error, House Republican Leader Bruce Bannister told me at the time, the understandable result of trying to deal with such a complicated bill. A staff attorney misunderstood the instructions, he told me.

Of course, it was no error that the entire bill was hatched at the last moment, and subcommittee and committee members were pressured to approve it without having time to read it.

That request for a secret hearing last month? Mr. Harrell didn’t want that; his attorneys were boxed in because the case was before a State Grand Jury, whose proceedings are by law secret.

Never mind that who prosecutes the case and what the Grand Jury members hear are completely separate matters.

This year’s get-out-of-jail-free card for legislators also was a mistake, supporters insisted, as they sent the bill back to subcommittee. We had no idea it could be retroactive, and certainly it wasn’t supposed to apply to actual crimes — just technical reporting errors.

Just ignore the fact that there’s already a provision in the law that forgives technical reporting errors.

The idea of disbanding the Grand Jury and sending the investigation to the House Ethics Committee, which has no power to prosecute crimes? Mr. Howe, the speaker’s criminal defense attorney, was quoted in The Nerve as saying he didn’t remember who raised the possibility that the attorney general lacked jurisdiction to prosecute legislators for criminal ethics violations.

Of course, it seems clear that Mr. Wilson didn’t suggest that. That leaves Mr. Harrell’s attorneys and Judge Manning.

After reporters started asking questions about the latest legislative effort to keep the attorney general from prosecuting legislators for ethics-law violations, 26 co-sponsors dropped their support and said they would send the legislation to committee for a review. Mr. Harrell, one of 39 representatives who did not initially sign on as a co-sponsor, put out a news release Thursday afternoon saying the legislation most certainly does not apply to legislators, although standard legal definitions leave little doubt that it does.

Senators always have complained that the House is a legislative racetrack, passing sloppily written bills that do things they weren’t intended to do and don’t do things they’re supposed to do. I don’t think any of us understood just how bad things were.

Because, of course, this isn’t Italy. No one would be so audacious as to think they could get away with sneaking through laws that would quash a State Grand Jury investigation.

Would they?

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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