Dueling lawyers will square off Friday morning in a Richland County courtroom as attorneys for S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell try to convince a circuit judge to rule that Attorney General Alan Wilson should stop his potentially criminal prosecution of Harrell.
Harrell’s lawyers are expected to argue that Judge Casey Manning should stop Wilson from using the State Grand Jury to investigate him and instead send Harrell’s case to the House Ethics Committee – a relatively toothless, 10-member body that can hand down light civil penalties at best.
In that committee, Harrell would have the advantage of having any matters concerning him handled by people who he has worked with and who might owe him favors.
On the other hand, Wilson already has launched a State Grand Jury investigation into Harrell’s alleged personal use of campaign funds. A State Grand Jury, which has the power of subpoena and uses professional investigators, is made up of citizens who don’t know Harrell. It has the power to issue an indictment that could result in a serious fine or prison sentence.
“The stakes are high,” said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina and one of the people who brought the original complaints against Harrell.
“Whichever side loses Friday’s hearing will likely appeal to the Supreme Court,” Crangle said.
An initial hearing on Harrell’s efforts to disqualify Wilson and the grand jury was held last month.
Friday’s hearing is remarkable on several levels.
First, Harrell and his lawyers didn’t want the public to know about his efforts to stop Wilson’s investigation.
But after The State newspaper disclosed in March that Harrell’s lawyers were seeking a secret hearing to kick Wilson off his case, the public, other media and open government advocates had a chance to get involved.
The S.C. Press Association hired media lawyer Jay Bender to file a brief with Manning, stressing that laws concerning open courts required Manning to hold open hearings about Wilson’s possible disqualification.
For another thing, no one can remember when a state attorney general, the state’s top prosecutor, has convened a State Grand Jury to investigate the speaker of the S.C. House.
Notice of Friday’s hearing was sent to reporters at 12:09 p.m. Thursday, five minutes after the S.C. House adjourned for the week.
A decision by Manning to remove the case from Wilson’s purview also would be embarrassing to SLED Chief Mark Keel.
Keel, the state’s top cop, oversaw a SLED investigation into Harrell’s affairs. He then joined with Wilson to request a State Grand Jury look into the allegations that Harrell misused hundreds of thousands of dollars campaign of money and used his legislative position for personal gain, charges Harrell denies.