Attorney general: House Speaker Harrell isn’t ‘above the law’

jmonk@thestate.comJune 8, 2014 

— Attorney General Alan Wilson filed a 50-page legal brief with the State Supreme Court asserting that House Speaker Bobby Harrell is not immune from scrutiny and arguing that he, SLED and the State Grand Jury have the right to investigate potential criminal acts by any of the 170 lawmakers in the S.C. General Assembly.

“No man in this country is so high that he is above the law,” Wilson wrote, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that rejected a U.S. senator’s claim he had immunity from prosecution because of his office.

Wilson’s brief, filed late Friday, is a broad legal attack on claims by Harrell that Wilson can’t prosecute him unless he first gets permission from the House Ethics Committee. That committee is made up of 10 of the Speaker’s friends and colleagues, five of whom have taken a total of $13,000 from Harrell in campaign contributions.

Wilson is expected to argue the case himself at a Supreme Court hearing on June 24. It will be a historic occasion in the state: Never before has a House speaker tried to stop an attorney general from conducting a criminal investigation of himself, as Harrell has been trying to do since February.

Harrell has until June 16 to file his own brief with the Supreme Court.

In his brief, Wilson cites 66 cases and 64 laws and sections of the State Constitution that he claims give him absolute authority to investigate ethics and public corruption cases involving S.C. lawmakers.

Wilson also cites history, reminding the five Supreme Court justices that since 1981, more than 20 members of the S.C. General Assembly have been prosecuted and convicted of various crimes involving public corruption, bribery and ethical violations.

In the 1991 scandal known as Lost Trust, Wilson wrote, the FBI investigated and helped convict 17 state lawmakers on “bribery and influence peddling” charges.

Because of scandals like that, state lawmakers like Harrell can’t declare themselves “super citizens” immune from criminal investigations by saying such matters must be referred to the House Ethics Committee, Wilson said.

The idea that Harrell and other lawmakers can stop a criminal investigation of themselves “is unwarranted, unsupported and unparalleled in the annals of American jurisprudence,” Wilson argued.

“History demonstrates that prosecutions for Ethics Acts crimes do not depend upon, and never have depended upon, a referral from a House or Senate ethics committee or the House or Senate generally,” Wilson wrote. ‘Such an impediment would essentially give legislators immunity from prosecution ....”

The legal battle between Harrell and Wilson grows out of a 2013 SLED investigation into Harrell’s possible misuse of campaign contributions. In January, Wilson announced he had convened a State Grand Jury investigation into Harrell’s affairs. To convene a State Grand Jury, SLED Chief Mark Keel and Wilson had to show a state judge they had cause to investigate Harrell.

In February, Harrell asked a state judge to hold a hearing over whether Wilson had jurisdiction to look into the matter.

In early May, after two public hearings, state circuit Judge Casey Manning ruled that state law prohibited Wilson and the State Grand Jury from investigating Harrell. The matters involving Harrell are not criminal, Manning wrote, and they should be handled in the House Ethics Committee.

In his brief, Wilson contests Manning’s action, saying that judge misread the law on numerous key points, including assuming that a State Grand Jury only has limited powers.

“The grand jury is an institution in its own right with broad powers to investigate public corruption,” Wilson wrote.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344

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