Scoppe: Worrisome turn of events in Harrell case

09/02/2014 9:16 PM

09/02/2014 9:17 PM

AS SPEAKER Bobby Harrell presided over last week’s bizarre one-day House session, he made it quite obvious that he expects to remain in charge of that body for the foreseeable future.

He named a study committee to look into ways to combat domestic violence, and vowed to make that a priority; he promised to do the same with highway funding. And his critics acknowledged what he already knew: that he has the votes sewn up to be re-elected speaker when the House gathers after the November election to organize for the 2015-16 session.

It was, in short, a very public opportunity for him to demonstrate how happy he is that the attorney general has transferred his corruption investigation of Mr. Harrell to First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe.

If I were Mr. Harrell, I wouldn’t be so happy. I wouldn’t be sure that this is merely a face-saving way for Attorney General Alan Wilson to extricate himself from a dead-end investigation.

It might very well be that Mr. Harrell is never indicted; he might not have done anything to merit indictment. But the transfer doesn’t demonstrate, or even suggest, either of those possibilities.

If I were Mr. Harrell, I’d actually be worried about this turn of events.

It’s true that Mr. Harrell has been working overtime since March to get Mr. Wilson removed from the case, but I doubt this was the sort of outcome he ever envisioned. I think if I were Mr. Harrell, I’d take note of the fact that Mr. Wilson managed to hand the case off on his own terms — without being removed by a judge, and therefore with no restrictions on his involvement in the case — and to a prosecutor of his choosing.

If I were Mr. Harrell, I’d be worried about the fact that the State Grand Jury didn’t release any sort of statement, which we were assured it would do if it actually made a decision not to indict.

For that matter, I’d be worried about the fact that Attorney General Alan Wilson has refused to say anything about the transfer, other than that cryptic comment to a Post and Courier reporter about how Mr. Harrell is “entitled to believe what he believes” about what the transfer means. After all, it’s common practice for attorneys general to notify whoever brought a complaint to them when they conclude an investigation without an indictment, and in fact Mr. Wilson has let it be known that it was his intention to let the public know if the investigation ended without an indictment.

I’d be worried about the fact that the SLED report hasn’t been made public. Yes, I know that Mr. Harrell has demanded that it be released, insisting that it will demonstrate his innocence. But it’s simply not credible to believe that Mr. Wilson and SLED Chief Mark Keel would jointly request a State Grand Jury investigation and that Circuit Judge Casey Manning would authorize that investigation on the basis of a report that had nothing that even hinted of criminality.

After all the attacks that have been made on his integrity, I daresay that Mr. Wilson has to be the only person in the state who wants that report public more than Mr. Harrell says he does. So if I were Mr. Harrell, I’d worry about the fact that it’s still under wraps, now that there’s no legal reason it has to remain that way. That strongly suggests that a serious criminal investigation is continuing.

Mostly, if I were Bobby Harrell, I’d be worried about former S.C. State Board Chairman Jonathan Pinson, convicted in July of racketeering and two dozen other federal corruption counts. And even more worried about Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts, indicted in June on federal corruption charges.

Rather than thinking I was out of the woods just because the State Grand Jury had been shut down, I’d be worried that there’s a U.S. attorney in South Carolina who apparently is quite interested in prosecuting public corruption cases.

I’d be worried about how closely the U.S. attorney worked with Mr. Wilson on the Metts case, with state charges against the sheriff’s alleged co-conspirators being brought in conjunction with the federal charges against the sheriff.

I’d be worried that a federal grand jury has even more investigative powers than the State Grand Jury — and that the U.S. attorney doesn’t have to get the permission for each step of his investigation from judges who are elected by the Legislature.

I have my theories as to why Mr. Wilson might have turned the case over to a solicitor — theories that I can’t prove but that are consistent with the rumors and speculation that, throughout this entire year, have been disturbingly spot-on.

Perhaps after the Supreme Court used a footnote to signal to Judge Manning that he should take the case completely underground, the judge made it clear that he was going to remove Mr. Wilson — even though the case for his removal, presented in open court, was embarrassingly weak — and so Mr. Wilson decided to beat him to the punch.

Or perhaps the judge just stonewalled the prosecution, refusing to approve routine motions necessary to continue using the Grand Jury as an investigative tool. If that’s the case, that’s something all of us ought to be worried about.

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

About Cindi Ross Scoppe

Cindi Ross Scoppe

@cindiscoppe

Cindi Ross Scoppe has covered state government and the General Assembly since 1988, first as a reporter and now as an editorial writer. She focuses on tax policy, public education, election and campaign finance law, the relationship between state and local government, the relationship between the people and their government, the judiciary and the executive branch of government. More

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