S.C. 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 also used in a successful lower-court case, that means S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson needs let the state House Ethics Committee weigh civil allegations against Harrell before taking any further steps.
"(E)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 response said. "The Attorney General does not have the right -- much less the duty -- to ignore enacted laws of this state."
Wilson appealed a ruling by Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning last month that that the state's top legal official erred in not taking charges that Harrell used his office for personal gain to the House Ethics Committee first. The Attorney General said if the ruling is not reversed that Harrell and other lawmakers could be treated as "super citizens." The S.C. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on June 24.
In his appeal filing on June 6, 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 using 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 wrong-doing.
“The Attorney General’s appeal of Judge Manning’s ruling was a political document designed to grab headlines," Harrell said in a statement Monday. "For example, the Attorney General’s appeal raises the patently absurd idea that this ruling creates a so-called 'super citizen.' Our response points out that the Ethics Act applies not only to me, but to every public official as well as private citizens who participate in various aspects of the political process." Harrell added: "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 issue in considering the case of the Speaker who hires them. Ethics committee members themselves are elected by all representatives and 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 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 response 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 that the complaints against him are civil, and not criminal, and that state law and court rulings say those cases must go before the House Ethics Committee.
The committee can refer cases to the Attorney General after review. That is proof Wilson could have a role in the case -- when the time is right, Harrell's lawyers wrote. Until then, the state 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.