Editorial: Harrell defense would create protected political class

April 27, 2014 

House Speaker Bobby Harrell addresses the media after a court hearing on his attempt to get Attorney General Alan Wilson removed from an investigation into his campaign spending.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

— THE CURIOUS case of House Speaker Bobby Harrell is getting curiouser and curiouser.

And worrisomer and worrisomer.

Last week, Charleston’s Post and Courier quoted Harrell attorney Gedney Howe as suggesting that a news release from Attorney General Alan Wilson somehow stripped the attorney general of jurisdiction to prosecute the speaker. Check that: His comments suggested that a news release somehow invalidated clear and unambiguous law and stripped the state of South Carolina of its jurisdiction to investigate and potentially prosecute allegations that Mr. Harrell converted campaign funds to personal use.

Indeed, his comments suggest more than that: They suggest that House members are the only people who can determine whether Mr. Harrell or any other House member can ever be prosecuted on charges of misusing campaign funds or state resources or other criminal ethics violations.

Last we checked, this was a nation — and a state — of laws, not of men. And certainly not of a protected political class who cannot be held accountable for crimes.

What’s next? Suggesting that legislators are likewise immune from prosecution for bribery and extortion?

The idea that an attorney general could do anything to strip his office of the duty to pursue criminal investigations would be too absurd even to consider — but for the fact that Circuit Judge Casey Manning apparently is considering it.

Clearly, Mr. Wilson should not have described his preliminary decision in October 2012 not to investigate Mr. Harrell but to defer to the House Ethics Committee as a way of “following the legal process” and giving the case “the chance to proceed as designed by law.”

Just as clearly, a prosecutor’s decision on whether to prosecute a given case and his ill-advised comments about that decision have no effect on what he might decide later. Or on what the law actually says.

In insisting that the House Ethics Committee is “the only entity with jurisdiction” over Mr. Harrell’s case, Mr. Howe also pointed to a 2013 decision by Judge Manning dismissing a lawsuit against Gov. Nikki Haley over ethics allegations from her service in the House.

What he fails to acknowledge is that Judge Manning’s spot-on ruling did not address whether the attorney general had jurisdiction to investigate allegations of criminal wrongdoing. He was addressing whether the Circuit Court had jurisdiction to hear a lawsuit from a private citizen who was attempting to bypass the Ethics Committee.

It is just as clear that the attorney general could have investigated Ms. Haley as it is that a private citizen could not. The fact that Mr. Wilson did not do that suggests that there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing — not that he lacked jurisdiction.

Likewise, the fact that Mr. Wilson was trying to dodge political charges of favoritism in October 2012 doesn’t change the fact that he had the legal jurisdiction then — and retains it today — to pursue any criminal charges that he sees fit. Against any defendant — even the powerful speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives.

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