Crime & Courts

Special prosecutor says attorney general can’t fire him from corruption probe

David Pascoe
David Pascoe

South Carolina’s attorney general Monday fired a special prosecutor who he had named to investigate allegations of corruption in the General Assembly.

Attorney General Alan Wilson ousted special prosecutor David Pascoe, the 1st Judicial Circuit solicitor, after Pascoe asked the S.C. Supreme Court to allow him to use the statewide grand jury as part of his investigation, access that Pascoe said Wilson was denying him.

However, late Monday, Pascoe rejected the idea that Wilson — who previously removed himself from the corruption investigation, citing a conflict of interest —could fire him, inviting the attorney general to meet him in court to decide the issue.

It was the second time in three months that Wilson’s office has put a roadblock in front of Pascoe’s investigation. In December, Republican Wilson’s office issued an opinion saying that the actions of some GOP legislators, which Democrat Pascoe had questioned, were not improper.

And Monday, a top lawyer in Wilson’s office, acting under the attorney general’s authority, notified Pascoe that he had been fired as special prosecutor in the corruption probe.

“I am now compelled to terminate all authority delegated to you,” wrote John McIntosh, chief deputy attorney general.

Pascoe responded to McIntosh, “Your letter does not alter my authority over this matter. ... To the extent your letter is an effort to change that, you should file an appropriate motion with ... the Supreme Court.”

In his letter, Pascoe said his request for a state jury investigation already had been approved by Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman and SLED Chief Mark Keel.

Wilson: Case will be reassigned

McIntosh wrote Pascoe’s investigation – which he had been conducting with Keel – would be reassigned “to another solicitor or solicitors.”

McIntosh accused Pascoe, who Wilson named to oversee corruption probes of state lawmakers in 2014 and 2015, of attempting to “unlawfully initiate a grand jury investigation.”

Wilson released a statement, saying he had no choice but to fire Pascoe.

“It is imperative that the public has complete confidence in the rule of law and that it is being applied ethically and honestly. My role as attorney general is not only to protect public trust, but also to protect the integrity of the process,” Wilson said. “With multiple media leaks over the last nine months, as well an obvious abuse of power, we believe this drastic measure is 100% necessary.”

John Crangle, the head of the Common Cause of South Carolina good-government watchdog group, said Wilson likely doesn’t have the authority to fire Pascoe.

“Pascoe might want to go before the Supreme Court and try to get them to make a ruling on this,” said Crangle, who has followed public corruption issues in South Carolina for years.

Special prosecutor asked court for help

Earlier Monday, The State newspaper reported Democrat Pascoe had asked the Supreme Court to stop Wilson from blocking the special prosecutor’s effort to have a state grand jury look into alleged public corruption in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Having state grand jury powers — to compel testimony and subpoena witnesses and documents — is crucial to finish up his ongoing investigation, Pascoe wrote in his Supreme Court filing, made late Friday.

“Months of investigation” went into his decision and that of SLED Chief Keel to seek state grand jury powers, Pascoe wrote in his petition to the court.

SLED has developed evidence that some legislators “may have engaged in alleged finance crimes and ethical violations,” according to Pascoe’s filing.

However, Wilson has instructed Jim Parks, the clerk of the state grand jury, to refuse to administer the oath of office to special prosecutors so they can use the state grand jury, Pascoe wrote. Any prosecutor using that jury must take an oath to abide by state grand jury law, and Parks is “the only person authorized to administer the oath,” Pascoe wrote, adding Parks’ refusal to carry out his duties “threatens to terminate an inquiry into public corruption.”

Parks did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

‘No way blocking ... probe’

Wilson’s office sent an email Monday to The State denying Wilson is trying to shut down the curruption investigation.

“This office is in no way blocking a public corruption probe. That is why we sent this case to Solicitor David Pascoe in the first place. However, we have grave concerns that Solicitor Pascoe is not following the law or proper procedure. The fact that we have to respond to this in the media shows that this matter is being handled inappropriately,” said Wilson’s statement.

On March 24, Parks told Pascoe in an email he would not administer any oaths or issue subpoenas, according to Pascoe’s filings. The Parks email is part of the court filings.

Parks “contends he works for and reports to the attorney general and that the attorney general’s office has instructed (Parks) not to administer the oath or issue subpoenas,” Pascoe’s filing said.

In his court filing — called a petition for a writ of mandamus — Pascoe sought to have the Supreme Court order Parks to swear in the special prosecutors. Pascoe also argued Parks doesn’t work for the attorney general but is an officer of the state judicial system.

December ruling hurt prosecutor

Pascoe’s filing Friday is significant, in part, because it shows the investigation into alleged State House corruption — reportedly targeting a handful of S.C. House members — is ongoing. For months, questions have swirled about whether that probe had been abandoned.

Pascoe and Wilson have tangled before over Pascoe's authority in that investigation.

In a December opinion, Wilson's office interpreted a state ethics law in a way that gave state lawmakers wide latitude to spend money, raised for political campaigns, on businesses that they or their relatives run.

Pascoe had requested that opinion, indicating he thought such practices were illegal.

The investigation into alleged public corruption in the General Assembly has been ongoing for three years. That investigation already has resulted in the resignation and guilty plea of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, on charges of misusing campaign money.

In 2013, the S.C. Policy Council, a Columbia-based limited government think tank, and Common Cause director Crangle persuaded Wilson to launch a SLED investigation in questionable financial dealings by former House Speaker Harrell.

In early 2014, Wilson announced he would seek a state grand jury investigation.

Out of public view, Harrell and his lawyers filed motions with a state judge, trying to shut down Wilson’s investigation, contending the attorney general could not investigate Harrell because Wilson had a conflict of interest. However, The State newspaper disclosed Harrell’s secret effort to block Wilson’s investigation.

Subsequently, Wilson decided to step aside and name a special prosecutor to handle any criminal proceedings against Harrell.

On July 24, 2014, Wilson formally requested Pascoe take over the Harrell investigation, requesting Pascoe serve as the “designated prosecutor” and asking Pascoe to continue the investigation “to its appropriate conclusion.”

Within weeks, Pascoe indicted Harrell on charges of misusing campaign money. On Oct. 23, 2014, Harrell pleaded guilty to those charges and agreed to resign.

Prosecutor: Attorney general can’t fire me

In November 2014, SLED released a 42-page report on its Harrell investigation. However, nine pages were redacted, or blacked out.

Asked at that time why the material was deleted, SLED Chief Keel said they pertained to an “ongoing investigation.” The State since has learned that two or more members of the S.C. General Assembly were named in the redacted portions of the SLED report.

Pascoe also indicated in November 2014 that his investigation was ongoing, and he had turned over the SLED report to the attorney general’s office.

Exactly what the attorney general’s office did with that report from late 2014 until mid-2015 is unclear.

However, on July 17, 2015, Wilson deputy McIntosh wrote SLED’s Keel informing him that Wilson had disqualified his office from investigating the legislators named in SLED’s Harrell report. In that letter, McIntosh asked Keel to complete his investigation and forward the results to Pascoe.

Last fall, The State newspaper identified state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, as one of the lawmakers named in the investigation. Wilson has declined comment, as has Merrill's lawyer.

Merrill, a political operative, has deep ties in the S.C. Republican Party. This year, he was S.C. campaign director for GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

In his filing to Supreme Court, Pascoe says, since Wilson authorized him to continue investigating the unnamed lawmakers, the attorney general can’t order him off the case.

Wilson shouldn’t be involved in the matter at all, Pascoe wrote. As special prosecutor, Pascoe said he and his staff “stand in the attorney general’s shoes.”

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