Publicizing referrals by the SC attorney general to grand juries commonplace

Greenville NewsJune 28, 2014 

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal makes a point inside the courtroom, Tuesday, June 24, 2014.The court heard South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson's challenge to a lower court order ordering him to halt a criminal investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

— The practice of notifying news media about cases being referred to the state grand jury isn’t so unusual and has a legitimate purpose, according to former State Attorney General Charlie Condon.

Condon issued a statement Friday saying every state attorney general since the state grand jury system was created has notified the news media of grand jury referrals.

His comments came as a result of questions earlier this week by South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal who said during a hearing about ethics allegations involving House Speaker Bobby Harrell that she had never heard of an attorney general making comments to the press about submitting something to the grand jury, which operates in secret.

Wilson had confirmed to news media that the Harrell case was being sent to the state grand jury.

“The whole behavior here has been very strange to me,” Toal said at one point.

Bobby Stepp, a lawyer representing Harrell, told Toal that he agreed with her.

“This case has been unprecedented in how it has been handled and the publicity associated with it,” he said.

“The press releases, the public statements, the fact that the attorney general has consistently commented about allegations of criminal activity involving Mr. Harrell, has severely prejudiced him.”

But Condon listed 12 cases stretching back to 1995 in which he said prosecutors talked publicly about referring cases to the state grand jury.

One of those cases, according to Condon, involved Carolina Investors, the company that cost about 12,000 people, most from the Upstate, an estimated $278 million when it and its parent company, HomeGold, failed in 2003.

Condon in some examples copied press releases. In others, he included news clippings.

“As a former attorney general I felt a moral obligation to set the record straight on this issue,” he said. “I can absolutely confirm that attorneys general frequently notify the media when referrals are made to the state grand jury. That has been true of every attorney general since the state grand jury was created.”

He said notifying the media informs the public about what is happening with the case but also is a means to letting reporters know that prosecutors can no longer discuss the case publicly.

Wilson sat in the courtroom during the questions about his press confirmations and at one point an assistant attempted to further talk to the justices about the issue but Toal cut him off.

“You don’t need to go there,” she said.

Condon, former Attorney General Henry McMaster and former Attorney Travis Medlock sat together in support of Wilson during a hearing earlier this month in which a circuit judge ruled Wilson had not presented evidence of criminal conduct by Harrell and therefore the ethics case was a civil matter out of the jurisdiction of the state grand jury and Wilson.

Wilson appealed that order, which set up the state Supreme Court hearing this week.

A decision by the justices is expected soon.

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