WE’VE SEEN this play before: Attorney General Alan Wilson is accused of a conflict of interest in a public corruption investigation. Because it involves the State Grand Jury, the dispute is set to play out in secret, even though it doesn’t involve any grand jury secrets and the central question is about political accountability, which is always the public’s business.
Last time, at least initially, the public got to watch. The public needs to be able to watch this dispute as well.
Under state law, anything that goes on inside a State Grand Jury hearing room is secret. But when House Speaker Bobby Harrell tried in 2014 to stop the State Grand Jury from investigating his campaign spending, Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning and later the state Supreme Court ruled that the dispute should be public. Their reasoning was that the sort of things the secrecy law protects — who the Grand Jury is questioning, what documents it’s seeking, what it’s learning — were in no way compromised by a debate over whether Mr. Wilson had a vendetta against the speaker.
As a result, we got to hear just how specious the speaker’s “evidence” of a political vendetta was. We got to find out that the judge was considering not whether the attorney general had a conflict of interest and would be replaced with another prosecutor, but whether an investigation could even continue.
When Judge Manning ruled that the attorney general couldn’t investigate whether legislators violated the state ethics law unless a legislative committee asked him to, we got to read his order. When the attorney general appealed to the Supreme Court, we got to read the briefs, and even watch the oral arguments on streaming video. When the court reversed Judge Manning’s order and remanded the case for a hearing, we got to read this bizarre footnote: “Due to the secrecy afforded state grand jury proceedings, future arguments regarding jurisdiction, or any other ancillary matter, should be held in camera,” or in private.
Legally speaking, that footnote only applied to the Harrell case, which was bad enough. But a lot of us feared that judges would read in it a much broader signal: to shut the public out of political conflicts over the attorney general’s power, and the courts’ response to such conflicts.
Today’s conflict over the attorney general’s power involves the allegation that Mr. Wilson is trying to quash an investigation in order to protect his friends.
After the Supreme Court sent the Harrell case back to Judge Manning, Mr. Wilson handed it off to First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, whose indictment of Mr. Harrell ended the speaker’s political career. Mr. Pascoe then suggested that some other legislators should be investigated, and Mr. Wilson agreed and recused himself from that investigation. But after Mr. Pascoe tried to launch a State Grand Jury investigation that state law allows only attorneys general to launch, the solicitor filed two petitions last month asking the Supreme Court to let him proceed.
Under the open-court policy that prevailed through the early stages of the Harrell affair, Mr. Pascoe had every right to make his petitions public, and Mr. Wilson should have done the same. Frankly, it was disingenuous for Mr. Wilson to complain about Mr. Pascoe’s public petitions, since Mr. Wilson himself had argued for openness in the Harrell matter. (Mr. Wilson may have legitimate complaints about the contents of Mr. Pascoe’s petitions, but not the fact that we all got to read them.)
But after Mr. Pascoe filed his second petition, the Supreme Court clerk sent Mr. Pascoe and Mr. Wilson an obliquely worded letter that seems to say everything in this dispute should be filed under seal. So Mr. Wilson did that with his first response on Friday, although he noted that his filings “do not contain information we believe needs to be maintained under seal.”
He continued: “If the Court agrees, we believe it is in the public interest for the Return and the attachments thereto to be disclosed.”
The court absolutely should agree, for the same reasons it initially agreed to let the public watch the showdown between Mr. Harrell and Mr. Wilson: Our state constitution requires that the courts operate in public — a mandate our Supreme Court has vigorously defended. And this was not a dispute over the grand jury’s statutorily protected secrets. It was a bare-knuckled political brawl over the use of the grand jury, as the most powerful man in state government tried to pick his own prosecutor.
I doubt anyone nearly so powerful is the target of Mr. Pascoe’s investigation. But the suggestion that our attorney general is trying to block a criminal investigation that presumably targets a close political ally is every bit as explosive.
Even if you believe that we never should have found out about this dispute, the fact is that we know about it now. And the public’s trust in our political and judicial systems will be further damaged if the court says we cannot see Mr. Wilson’s official response — and how the court decides the matter.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.