COLUMBIA, SC — Attorney General Alan Wilson on Tuesday morning requested the S.C. Supreme Court overturn a circuit court judge’s decision ordering him to halt an ongoing criminal investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
Hours later, the S.C. Supreme Court wrote Wilson and Harrell’s lawyers, saying that it had set a June 24 date to hear oral arguments in the historic political and legal clash between a House speaker and an attorney general. The order setting the date for arguments was signed by all five justices.
The court made no decision on Wilson’s request to overturn the May 12 ruling by Judge Casey Manning which ordered Wilson, SLED and a State Grand Jury to halt the ongoing criminal investigation.
Wilson had made his request for a reversal of the Manning decision Tuesday morning, and the Supreme Court has not had time to consider that specific issue.
However, Wilson had on Monday filed a notice of appeal and a request for speedy action with the Supreme Court. At that time, his legal battle, lower court defeat and intention to appeal had been a major state news story for two months, ever since The State newspaper disclosed that Harrell’s lawyers had launched a secret legal bid to stop the investigation of Harrell.
Tuesday afternoon, in setting the June 24 date for oral argument, the Supreme Court said it was not reacting to Wilson’s Monday request for speed but had decided “to expedite this matter on its own volition.”
The high court’s speed underscores this case’s importance. Most issues take months to get a hearing before the justices, if a hearing is granted at all.
In his 24-page brief filed Tuesday asking the justices to reverse Manning’s decision, Wilson detailed the major legal issues in the case — issues that have caused the battle between him and Harrell to become a major focus of political and legal attention across South Carolina.
Saying that Judge Manning’s order disbanding the State Grand Jury investigating Harrell goes against the attorney general’s “centuries-old” power to go after criminals, Wilson wrote that the 170 lawmakers of the House and Senate cannot give themselves a “safe harbor” from criminal investigations.
“It is unimaginable that the Legislature intended to grant itself immunity from criminal investigation by the State Grand Jury,” Wilson wrote. “The rule of law should apply equally to everyone, without privilege or immunity for anyone.”
The very idea of a judge ordering an attorney general to halt a State Grand Jury investigation in the middle of an ongoing criminal probe of a powerful state official like Harrell is unheard of in American history, Wilson wrote.
“The lower court’s order is unprecedented in American law and unsupported by any known legal authority,” Wilson wrote. The order “stops dead in its tracks an ongoing criminal investigation of public corruption by a State Grand Jury properly impaneled.”
In ruling that Wilson, SLED and the State Grand Jury had to give up their investigation of Wilson, Manning in his May 12 opinion found that under state law, the allegations against Harrell were ethical in nature, and any and all ethical violations must first go to the 10-member House Ethics Committee.
If the House Ethics Committee wants to send any ethics violations on to Wilson to investigate for a possible criminal nature, it can do so, Manning wrote. Only at that time, the judge wrote, can the attorney general launch a criminal investigation.
The Ethics Committee, which is made up of friends and colleagues of Harrell, is under no obligation to forward allegations to Wilson. Five members of that committee have taken money from a PAC associated with Harrell. Ethics Committee members interviewed by The State said they can be fair.
In his May 12 ruling, Judge Manning write Wilson’s probe is “premature” and any action taken by the State Grand Jury to date is “null and void.”
In recent interviews, Wilson has vowed to continue his investigation of Harrell until the Supreme Court either rules on the matters or tells him to stop.
In his May 12 ruling, Manning further said that Wilson had offered no evidence of any alleged criminal conduct by Harrell and therefore the attorney general should stop his criminal investigation and let the House Ethics Committee take over.
However, at a May 2 hearing on the matter, Wilson — in arguing his case before Manning — insisted to the judge that he was in fact investigating.
In an interview Tuesday after Wilson’s latest filing became public, Harrell spoke with reporters, making it clear he will contest Wilson in the Supreme Court.
“The judge (Manning) was very clear in his ruling,” Harrell told reporters at the State House. Under questioning by Manning, Wilson didn’t cite any criminal allegations against Harrell, the speaker said.
“The judge said he (Wilson) didn’t present one piece of anything that pointed to anything criminal,” Harrell said.
Harrell also said Wilson is guilty of ethical violations when it comes to accepting money. “He ought to have a special prosecutor take a look at them.”
Wilson’s violations of campaign laws have been well-publicized, said Wilson’s campaign consultant, Richard Quinn. However, he admitted his mistakes, replaced money and has not been charged with any crimes.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344