Dueling lawyers will square off Friday morning in a Richland County courtroom as attorneys for S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell try to convince a circuit judge to rule that Attorney General Alan Wilson should stop his potentially criminal prosecution of Harrell.
Harrells lawyers are expected to argue that Judge Casey Manning should stop Wilson from using the State Grand Jury to investigate him and instead send Harrells case to the House Ethics Committee a relatively toothless, 10-member body that can hand down light civil penalties at best.
In that committee, Harrell would have the advantage of having any matters concerning him handled by people who he has worked with and who might owe him favors.
On the other hand, Wilson already has launched a State Grand Jury investigation into Harrells alleged personal use of campaign funds. A State Grand Jury, which has the power of subpoena and uses professional investigators, is made up of citizens who dont know Harrell. It has the power to issue an indictment that could result in a serious fine or prison sentence.
The stakes are high, said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina and one of the people who brought the original complaints against Harrell.
Whichever side loses Fridays hearing will likely appeal to the Supreme Court, Crangle said.
An initial hearing on Harrells efforts to disqualify Wilson and the grand jury was held last month.
Fridays hearing is remarkable on several levels.
First, Harrell and his lawyers didnt want the public to know about his efforts to stop Wilsons investigation.
But after The State newspaper disclosed in March that Harrells lawyers were seeking a secret hearing to kick Wilson off his case, the public, other media and open government advocates had a chance to get involved.
The S.C. Press Association hired media lawyer Jay Bender to file a brief with Manning, stressing that laws concerning open courts required Manning to hold open hearings about Wilsons possible disqualification.
For another thing, no one can remember when a state attorney general, the states top prosecutor, has convened a State Grand Jury to investigate the speaker of the S.C. House.
Notice of Fridays hearing was sent to reporters at 12:09 p.m. Thursday, five minutes after the S.C. House adjourned for the week.
A decision by Manning to remove the case from Wilsons purview also would be embarrassing to SLED Chief Mark Keel.
Keel, the states top cop, oversaw a SLED investigation into Harrells affairs. He then joined with Wilson to request a State Grand Jury look into the allegations that Harrell misused hundreds of thousands of dollars campaign of money and used his legislative position for personal gain, charges Harrell denies.