Cindi Ross Scoppe

Alan Wilson made a political call, but not the one you think

SC Attorney General Alan Wilson surrounded himself with flags and former attorneys general to defend removing Solicitor David Pascoe from a criminal investigation that he never should have authorized.
SC Attorney General Alan Wilson surrounded himself with flags and former attorneys general to defend removing Solicitor David Pascoe from a criminal investigation that he never should have authorized. tdominick@thestate.com

DAVID PASCOE’S charge that Alan Wilson tried to undermine a corruption investigation was disturbingly misleading — at best.

Mr Wilson’s latest Supreme Court filing

Emails released this week between Mr. Pascoe and career prosecutors in the attorney general’s office show that what the solicitor characterized as Wilson aides reaching out to a defense attorney to discuss his investigation was actually an attempt to stop any more details from being illegally released, after The State revealed the name of one of the targets.

Those emails, contained in Mr. Wilson’s latest filing with the state Supreme Court, also show that Mr. Pascoe repeatedly called on the attorney general’s office for assistance, and even had a Kumbaya encounter with those attorneys after writing a blistering email alleging interference. That cooperative relationship, Mr. Wilson notes, “is completely at odds” with Mr. Pascoe’s central legal argument: that Mr. Wilson ceded any role for his office in the investigation months earlier, when he recused himself because of his close relationship with Rep. Rick Quinn.

SLED report names 2 with ties to Wilson What’s in SLED’s blacked-out pages

The filing provides a strong legal and political defense for Mr. Wilson’s decision to remove Mr. Pascoe from the investigation after the solicitor tried to launch a State Grand Jury investigation without the approval from Mr. Wilson that state law requires.

But the SLED report that spawned this investigation provides an equally powerful indication that Mr. Wilson did in fact make a political rather than legal decision in this case.

That wasn’t removing Mr. Pascoe. It was allowing a criminal investigation to proceed without any legal basis.

As The State’s John Monk reported after he saw the redacted portions of the SLED report on then-Speaker Bobby Harrell, the only concern raised about Mr. Quinn and Rep. Jim Merrill was that the House Republican Caucus paid them to do political consulting work while they served as caucus leaders. That’s something anyone who cared to know about has always known.

The SLED report said their work was “potentially in conflict” with a state law that prohibits “use of official position or office for financial gain.”

A simplistic reading of that law certainly suggests that Reps. Quinn and Merrill violated it. But as Solicitor General Bob Cook explained in painstaking detail when Mr. Pascoe requested an official opinion last year, the law that prohibits using public office for personal gain doesn’t apply to the party caucuses, because state law doesn’t define party caucuses as governmental bodies.

Read why Quinn, Merrill actions weren’t illegal: AG opinion points to more repairs needed to tattered ethics law

Now, that might not be what the law ought to say, given the oversized role caucuses play in our government. But how often does our ethics law say what it ought to say? It says what the legislators who wrote it want it to say, and they never wanted their caucuses to be considered governmental bodies.

You fix that problem by changing the law. Not by allowing police to spend the better part of a year investigating legislators based on their having done something the law does not prohibit.

I suspect that when Mr. Wilson first saw Mr. Quinn’s name in the SLED report, he panicked, and then asked his staff about it. I suspect they told him there was no crime here — just as Mr. Cook later explained in his official opinion. I suspect Mr. Wilson thought that was the end of that, until he tapped Mr. Pascoe to finish the Harrell investigation, and Mr. Pascoe suggested the Quinn/Merrill allegation needed further investigation.

Read about the initial hand-off to Mr Pascoe: Harrell’s off the hook, but other SC legislators might not be

At this point, Mr. Wilson should have told Mr. Pascoe there was nothing to investigate. But he didn’t. Instead, he said he had a potential conflict of interest, given his relationship with Mr. Quinn, and ordered his top deputy to look into it. Ten months later his deputy likewise washed his hands of the matter, directing SLED to send whatever it had to Mr. Pascoe. And for the next eight months, SLED apparently investigated Reps. Quinn and Merrill, at Mr. Pascoe’s direction.

Protecting Mr. Quinn? If anything, Mr. Wilson was sacrificing Mr. Quinn, and Mr. Merrill, so he wouldn’t have to answer to charges that he was protecting them. He suggested precisely that at his awful, awful news conference, when he said he decided to authorize further investigation because he was “sick and tired of being criticized for everything I do.”

Read my previous columns on this dispute In Pascoe v Wilson, the law seems to be on Wilson’s side Wilson and aide crossed line in attacking Pascoe

There’s a thin line here, to be sure: A prosecutor should have someone else make the call if there’s any doubt about whether someone close to him should be prosecuted. If that call is “prosecute,” he should turn the job over to another prosecutor. But if he is certain that there was no crime, he has an obligation to say so, even if that puts him in a difficult political position.

None of this is to say that Reps. Quinn and Merrill have not violated other laws. In fact, I’d be surprised if SLED agents weren’t able to find some other violations. I’d be surprised if SLED agents couldn’t find some laws that you or I or anyone else has violated if they spent eight months trying. And that’s the problem with Mr. Wilson’s decision: Police should have a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing before they investigate us. Here, they did not.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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