COLUMBIA, SC — S.C. Supreme Court justices questioned arguments from the state Attorney General's office on Tuesday that the judge who permitted a State Grand Jury to examine ethics-violation allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell should not have stopped the proceedings.
Attorney General Alan Wilson appealed to the S.C. Supreme Court a decision by Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning last month that ended his probe of Harrell, R-Charleston. Manning agreed to impanel the grand jury in January after reading a petition signed by Wilson and State Law Enforcement Division chief Mark Keel, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Creighton Waters said during the hearing.
But after hearing arguments from Harrell's lawyers, Manning said he received from Wilson no evidence of a criminal violation, which is what the State Grand Jury is supposed to review. Manning ruled alleged civil violations of state ethics laws must be heard by the House Ethics Committee.
SLED spent 10 months compiling a report after Wilson's office received allegations that Harrell spent campaign money on his private plane, used his office to help his pharmaceutical business and appointed his brother to a panel that reviews judicial candidates. It remains unclear if Manning has read the report.
"This investigation has gone on for quite a while," Associate Supreme Court Justice Don Beatty asked Waters on Tuesday. "You had more than (the original) allegations. You had a state investigation. Didn't you have something that you could give the impaneling judge to keep this investigation before the grand jury going?"
Waters said he did not agree with Beatty's interpretation that the Attorney General must provide periodic updates to check on the work of the grand jury. Wilson wanted the State Grand Jury to do its work, Waters said.
Robert Stepp, an attorney representing Harrell, told the justices that Manning had the right to ask for proof of potential criminal wrong-doing. Manning was left no choice but to end the State Grand Jury investigation when Wilson did not present any criminal evidence, Stepp said.
"What ever (Manning) he had seen didn't satisfy him," Stepp said after the hearing.
Harrell has not been charged with a crime or civil ethics violation, but Waters said his lawyers act as if a decision has been made about filing charges since the allegations against the Speaker were handed to the State Grand Jury.
"It's the beginning, not the end," Waters said.
Stepp said Harrell's reputation has been hurt with how the case has been handled, especially with a news release from the Attorney General's office about the grand jury investigation, which usually is done in secret.
"It has clouded the atmosphere," he said.
Harrell, who came to court with his wife and children, said after the hearing, "The justices made it clear to us that, from what they've seen, the attorney general was simply trying to convict me in the court of public opinion because he can't seem to get it done in the courtroom."
The Attorney General's office had no comment after the hearing Tuesday.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who served for 13 years in the State House and whose re-election this year was aided by Harrell, took Wilson's office to task for issuing the news release.
"The whole behavior in this case has been very strange," she said.
Waters tried to bring up the news release at the end of hearing, but Toal cut him off.
Ashley Landess, president of the libertarian think tank S.C. Policy Council who filed the original allegations against Harrell with Wilson's office, said after the hearing that she has little confidence in the independence of state judges, including Supreme Court justices, who are elected by the General Assembly.
"If this court rules wrong, I don't know what that means for our state," she said.
No timetable for a decision from the court was announced, but Stepp said he expected one soon.
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