For six years as attorney general, Alan Wilson could do little wrong when it came to his public image. He has been talked about by many as a strong contender in the 2018 governor’s race.
That has changed.
In the past month, Wilson, a 42-year-old Republican, has been gobsmacked by publicity that is every politician’s nightmare.
In a filing in the S.C. Supreme Court, Wilson has been accused of trying to halt a State Law Enforcement Division investigation into possible public corruption in the Legislature.
Days later, two of Wilson’s political allies later were revealed by The State newspaper as potential subjects of the probe. And, during a March 30 press conference, Wilson hurled personal insults at the prosecutor who made the filing in the high court. At the press conference, Wilson also emotionally claimed that unnamed “cowards” and “haters” were out to get him.
Then, a top aide, Adam Piper, was discovered hatching a plot to publicly smear Wilson’s legal opponent, special prosecutor David Pascoe. Wilson did not discipline Piper.
These events spell trouble for Wilson’s future, some say.
“It just looks to the average fellow that the attorney general is trying to push something aside,” said Neal Thigpen, a state Republican party activist for more than 40 years and a former political science professor at Francis Marion University in Florence, which Wilson attended. Thigpen also is a friend of Wilson’s father, Joe Wilson, a Republican congressman from South Carolina since 2001.
“Logically, you would have to say, this could have an effect on whether Alan makes the race or not,” Thigpen said. “This could be damaging – regardless of the outcome” of the court’s deliberation.
Asked Friday about his political future and whether it had been affected by the Supreme Court controversy, Wilson’s office released a short statement.
“The attorney general is focused on doing the best job possible as attorney general,” said Wilson spokeswoman Hayley Thrift. “Our filings speak for themselves.”
Worse than a sex scandal?
Wilson, like Gov. Nikki Haley, is from Lexington County. They were elected to statewide office the same year.
But even she said recently that the now-month-old Wilson-Pascoe dispute is “an embarrassing mess” and called on the Supreme Court to end it.
In his filings in the state Supreme Court, Pascoe has accused Wilson of trying to halt Pascoe’s and SLED’s ongoing State Grand Jury investigation of legislators’ possible criminal violations.
Pascoe has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether Wilson has the authority to intervene in the investigation after the attorney general recused himself because of conflicts and appointed Pascoe as prosecutor instead. Pascoe also has asked the court to keep Wilson from firing him, as Wilson would like.
College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts said the stakes are high for Wilson in the current controversy.
Although all the facts aren’t known in the Wilson-Pascoe battle, and the S.C. Supreme Court has yet to rule, controversies involving finances or public corruption and alleged cover-ups – as the current dispute is rife with – are the worst kind of publicity for a politician, Knotts said.
“Even sex scandals aren’t as bad,” Knotts said. “If people view this as some type of corruption scandal, that could be damaging for Wilson’s future prospects.”
But Wilson has won his office in two statewide races and “at this point, until we have more information, he is a person who is known across the state and who would be a contender for future office,” Knotts said.
Some remain strongly loyal to Wilson.
Laura Hudson, head of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council, said, “All of our crime victims are very much in favor of Alan continuing his career. I don’t see any reason why not. He’s done so much for victims of criminal domestic violence and forming a human trafficking task force and using the bully pulpit of the attorney general’s office to get things done.”
Longtime Republican political operative Bob McAlister said of Wilson’s fate: “It’s too early to know. A lot is dependent on what the Supreme Court does. But this is important to know – Alan Wilson has done a lot of good things as attorney general.”
In addition to building up his crime-fighting credentials, Wilson has used his position to take legal and political stands that are popular with the highly conservative and fundamentalist religious base that votes in Republican primaries, said Clemson University political scientist David Woodard.
On the political front, before South Carolina’s February GOP presidential primary, Wilson traveled the state, boosting his profile by hosting forums for most all of the Republican presidential front-runners, Woodard noted.
In South Carolina, that’s something that, normally, a congressman would do, not someone like Wilson, who holds statewide elective office. The gatherings gave Wilson the chance to share his message of limited government, states rights, socially conservative values and strict constitutional interpretation before thousands of South Carolinians – helpful if he choses to seek a higher office.
On the legal front, Wilson has used his office to take stands similar to those of conservative Republicans nationwide: filing legal actions to fight transgender equality bathroom access and to weaken the authority of the EPA to enact regulations environmentalists say are needed but big business interests say are burdensome.
Even Wilson’s losing legal stands play well with many in the conservative electorate.
Last year, he fought a long and failing taxpayer-financed federal court battle to stop the legalization of same-sex marriage. And his office continues to defend a death penalty appeal in a case in which a federal judge overturned the verdict and denounced a prosecutor for comparing a black defendant to “King Kong.”
“I thought Wilson had been doing pretty well, and insulating himself from any criticism up until now, but this (current publicity) is a setback,” Clemson’s Woodard said.
“If Wilson has any chink in his armor, that will encourage people to come out and run against him,” Woodard said.
Code of conduct
Many of the state’s 10,000-plus lawyers are watching the Wilson controversy, said Greg Adams, who teaches legal ethics at the University of South Carolina law school.
“I’ve certainly heard a number of lawyers, not just criminal lawyers, talking about his comments being out of bounds, uncivil, in violation of our oath of office – and being unethical,” Adams said.
Under the lawyers’ code of professional conduct, attorneys can argue a case passionately in court, but they take an oath to be civil to each other outside court, Adams said.
Even if Wilson wins the case in the Supreme Court against Pascoe, “the lawyers with whom I’ve talked have reached the judgment that Wilson has not handled this in a professional way,” Adams said.
Wilson’s conduct contrasts with that of Pascoe, who has made no public comment about the Supreme Court litigation and is perceived as “simply trying to get an issue resolved,” Adams said.
Wilson has said if the Supreme Court allows him to fire Pascoe, he wants the SLED and State Grand Jury investigation to go forward with a new special prosecutor.
But John Crangle, executive director of S.C. Common Cause and a longtime observer of ethics in state government, said that by seeking to fire Pascoe and making personal attacks on him while Pascoe is in the midst of an ongoing public corruption investigation, Wilson has handled himself poorly – no matter what he says.
Thigpen said, “Even if Alan wins in the Supreme Court over Pascoe, this whole thing has to be viewed as a minus for him.”
ABOUT ALAN WILSON
FAMILY: Adopted son of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. Married to Jennifer, with two children
COLLEGE: Francis Marion University, 1996; University of South Carolina Law School, 2002
EXPERIENCE: Attorney general since 2010. Previous work experience: clerk to a state judge,11th Judicial Circuit assistant solicitor and assistant attorney general. Holds rank of lieutenant colonel in the National Guard; served a year in Iraq.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has:
▪ Emphasized prosecution of Internet child sexual predators and human traffickers
▪ Prosecuted, through his office and special prosecutor David Pascoe, public corruption allegations against former House Speaker Bobby Harrell. In October 2014, Harrell pleaded guilty to misuse of campaign funds and resigned from office.
▪ Highlighted criminal domestic violence as a major state issue
▪ Backed passage of Emma’s Law, a tougher drunk driving bill
▪ Involved the state in federal legal actions opposing many of President Barack Obama’s initiatives, including Obamacare and bringing Guantanamo Bay prisoners to South Carolina