Scoppe: Heard the latest on the Harrell case? Everyone else has

Associate EditorJune 29, 2014 

— COLUMBIA is very much a small town when it comes to political gossip. So even though it’s a crime to talk about the substance of State Grand Jury investigations, it was no surprise that rumor and speculation about the corruption investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell have been ubiquitous, particularly since word leaked in March about Mr. Harrell’s attempt to remove Attorney General Alan Wilson as the prosecutor.

What’s been striking is how confidently people have been passing along the rumors — I’ve talked to lawyers from far outside of Columbia who assure me that they know what judges are thinking about the case. What’s been more striking — and disturbing — is how accurate the gossip has been.

We heard months ago that Circuit Judge Casey Manning had moved way beyond Mr. Harrell’s request and would rule that the Grand Jury lacked jurisdiction to investigate allegations that Mr. Harrell converted campaign funds to personal use. And sure enough, he did just that.

We heard that it was Judge Manning — and not Mr. Harrell’s attorneys — who had raised that idea. And in open court, Judge Manning acknowledged as much.

We heard that Judge Manning was focusing on language in the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Rainey v. Haley that said the House and Senate Ethics committees had “exclusive” jurisdiction over legislators’ compliance with the state Ethics Act. And that was at the heart of his May 12 ruling quashing the Grand Jury investigation.

We heard that Judge Manning was the judge who had approved the request by Mr. Wilson and SLED Chief Mark Keel to empanel the grand jury. And the attorney general’s Supreme Court brief said that was the case.

We have heard for weeks now that the Supreme Court would reject the idea that Rainey was relevant to a criminal investigation. And during oral arguments on Tuesday, Chief Justice Jean Toal quickly made it clear that she had never disagreed with the two justices who argued in a concurring opinion in Rainey that Rainey was not relevant to criminal investigations. So that speculation appears to have been correct as well.

We have heard for weeks that the chief justice was fixated on the news release that Mr. Wilson sent out in January announcing that he was referring the case to the Grand Jury. And on Tuesday Ms. Toal brought that up and returned to it multiple times, going so far as to call it “unprecedented” and say she had “never heard of having a news release to announce you’re going to submit something to the Grand Jury, ever.” So that rumor appears to have been correct as well.

That point merits a little more explanation, particularly because it plays into the final piece of speculation, which has not yet played out. Justice Toal might never have noticed such a thing, but it is by no means unprecedented. I still have the news release Mr. Wilson sent out in 2011 announcing he was asking the Grand Jury to investigate then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. When I asked the attorney general’s office on Wednesday about similar news releases, I was provided with three others, involving S.C. State University and two high-profile securities fraud investigations. I also was sent six news articles in which the attorney general’s office confirmed that other high-profile cases had been referred to the Grand Jury.

I’m told from previous administrations that the main goal of these news releases is to get reporters to stop hounding the office for information, by making it clear that no more comment can be made.

I’m told that the irritated references the chief justice made to news conferences had at least in part to do with leaks — the most dramatic being when The State’s John Monk reported that Mr. Harrell had filed a secret document asking a judge to hold a secret hearing to kick Mr. Wilson off the case, alleging that he had a conflict of interest. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the attorney general’s office had the strongest motive to release such information, either directly or through loose talk.

As a journalist, I’m a huge fan of loose tongues. But as one who believes deeply in the importance of an apolitical judicial system, I’ve been troubled by how much people who are not directly involved in this case seem to know. I’ve been even more troubled by the gnawing feeling that so much of the speculation could be spot-on only if judges are engaging in ex parte conversations, or at least loose cocktail talk.

Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us either. After all, the Legislature elects our judges, for fixed terms, and until the law was changed two decades ago to require legislators to resign before they could run, most judges were elected directly from the Legislature. Even today, former legislators and family and law partners of current legislators are the odds-on favorites to win a seat on the bench.

Since winning or retaining a judgeship requires collecting legislators’ votes, many judges and would-be judges are actively involved in the social scene that engulfs our lawmakers during the legislative session, often attending legislative receptions and even more informal gatherings of legislators. They form convenient as well as genuine friendships with the political elite. And since one of the primary currencies inside this bubble is information, the temptation is great to say more than the idealist might want them to say.

The latest speculation, which I’ve been hearing since well before the oral arguments, is that the justices will overturn Judge Manning’s order, if not rejecting all of his legal reasoning, direct the judge to decide whether Mr. Wilson should be replaced with another prosecutor and strongly suggest that he should be. And straight out of the gate on Tuesday, the chief justice launched into a lengthy inquiry about a judge’s authority to disqualify the attorney general, and pointedly noted that the question had not been decided; Justice Kay Hearn came back to the point later in the arguments.

Of course, the idea that the tracks are greased to toss Mr. Wilson off the case is just speculation. Like all the other speculation before it.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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