House Speaker Bobby Harrell is not being treated above the law by having ethics complaints levied against him heard first by a group of legislators and not the State Grand Jury, his lawyers argued in a state Supreme Court filing Monday.
Harrell's legal team said the Charleston Republican is subject to state laws as they are written and interpreted. In their opinion, which they used in a successful lower-court case, that means S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson needs to let the state House Ethics Committee weigh civil allegations against Harrell before taking any further steps.
“Everyone who is subject to the Ethics Act must follow and adhere to the procedures that it creates for the investigation and disposition of allegations of violations of the act,” Harrell's lawyers said. “The attorney general does not have the right – much less the duty – to ignore enacted laws of this state.”
Wilson appealed a ruling last month by Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning that the state's top legal officer erred in not taking the charges that Harrell — that he used his office for personal gain — first to the House Ethics Committee. The attorney general said if the ruling is not reversed Harrell and other lawmakers could be treated as “super-citizens.” The S.C. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case June 24.
In his June 6 appeal, Wilson said he had the right to investigate complaints brought by the S.C. Policy Council, a libertarian think tank, that Harrell misused campaign money to pay for his personal plane, abused his position to aid one of his businesses and appointed his brother to a key judicial review panel. Harrell has denied any wrongdoing.
“The attorney general’s appeal of Judge Manning’s ruling was a political document designed to grab headlines,” Harrell said in a statement Monday. “Failure to uphold the lower court's correct ruling would unleash the potential of a rogue prosecutor unrestrained by the Constitution and unaccountable to law and legal precedent.”
Wilson has said in testimony that the House Ethics Committee staff might have a conflict of interest in the case against the speaker, who hires them. Ethics Committee members are elected by all representatives, not appointed by the speaker. But half of the 10-member Ethics Committee accepted donations from a political group with ties to Harrell.
Harrell's attorneys said Wilson was overstepping his authority in raising conflict-of-interest concerns.
“The constitutional authority of the attorney general does not confer upon him the right to refuse to comply (with state law) based on a perceived conflict of interest or any other reason,” Harrell's lawyers said. “The attorney general is not simply empowered to decide independently that a conflict exists. His failure to adhere to the law has rendered everything that has transpired since he received the complaint null and void.”
The speaker argues the complaints against him are civil, and not criminal, and state law and court rulings say those allegations must go before the House Ethics Committee.
That committee can refer cases to the attorney general after its review for possible criminal prosecution. That is proof Wilson could have a role in the case – when the time is right, Harrell's lawyers wrote. Until then, the attorney general is violating the separation of powers, they argue.
Harrell's response also said the State Grand Jury is not supposed to review civil allegations. Manning based his ruling, in part, on not seeing any evidence of criminal wrong-doing from Wilson's office.
“The attorney general has no statutory or criminal right unilaterally to ... attempt to criminalize those patently civil claims by placing them before the State Grand Jury,” Harrell's response said.
Wilson has said the State Grand Jury is investigating criminal allegations. His office had no comment Monday.