- Associated Press - Thursday, May 15, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Who has the power to choose which cases to prosecute in South Carolina, if not the state’s attorney general?

It’s a question being raised after a judge halted an investigation involving the House speaker - ostensibly the state’s most powerful lawmaker - ruling the case should first be heard not by the State Grand Jury but by the House Ethics Committee, where the accused would be judged by a panel of his legislative peers.

Prosecutors say the move seriously undercuts the attorney general’s power, while watchdogs worry the action means legislators are able to break laws with minimal consequence. Both groups worry the case sets a dangerous precedent by saying lawmakers aren’t held to the same legal standards as the people who elect them and instead are judged solely by their colleagues.

Attorney General Alan Wilson had been in the midst of presenting state police findings regarding possible corruption charges against Speaker Bobby Harrell to the State Grand Jury. The case stems from allegations the powerful Charleston Republican used his influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business and improperly appointed his brother to a judicial candidate screening committee.

But, after objections from Harrell’s attorneys, a circuit judge overseeing the process this week ordered Wilson to halt the investigation. The judge ruled that such allegations against a lawmaker must first be heard by a legislative ethics panel, which could ultimately then send the matter to prosecutors for consideration.

State ethics law, Circuit Judge Casey Manning wrote, requires that the attorney general first have such a panel’s approval before pursuing his own case.

“The Attorney General’s initiation of this matter is premature,” Manning wrote. “Any investigation by the State Grand Jury at this stage is illegitimate.”

The move was immediately celebrated by Harrell, who had decried the entire case as “politically motivated” and criticized Wilson for pursuing it.

“By defying the court’s order the way he did, Alan Wilson is trying to act as both prosecutor and judge in this case,” Harrell told AP Wednesday. “He’s made it clear that this is about playing politics.”

Wilson, meanwhile, has vowed not only to continue his investigation but to pursue a variety of further remedies, including appealing the case and potentially even taking it himself to the House Ethics Panel. He said there was no personal motive involved, noting he moved forward with the case after consulting a half dozen career prosecutors, several senior investigators at the State Law Enforcement Division and the SLED chief.

To Wilson, the ruling raises concerns both about his ability to act as the people’s advocate but also takes dangerous strides in creating a special judicial system for legislators.

“Nobody else in the state has this unique power to control a committee like this,” Wilson told The Associated Press. “No one should be above the law.”

Among the options for Wilson is presenting the matter to a county-level grand jury or to the House Ethics Committee, a body that handles only civil matters. Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, chairs that panel and said this week that, should his committee hear the case, it would do so independent of Harrell’s influence. He noted that the panel members are elected by the legislature at large and are not appointed by Harrell.

Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council, a libertarian-leaning, pro-limited government think tank, initially brought the allegations to Wilson. Her primary concern lies in the concentration of power among the state’s lawmakers, who control hundreds of appointments to agencies, boards and commissions. The speaker alone, Landess said, makes more than 70 of those selections.

“They’ve created a system by which they profit,” Landess said, referencing the allegation she raised that Harrell used his position as speaker to solicit business for his private company. “The Legislature picks who interprets their laws.”

Lawmakers also select the state’s judges, including the jurist who halted Harrell’s case and the five Supreme Court justices who will ultimately decide any appeal. That notion, Landess said, goes toward her argument that power of the state’s lawmakers reaches far outside the Statehouse.

“There’s nothing more frightening to people than the notion that the judicial system is corrupt,” she said. “Questions are absolutely being raised about the integrity of our courts system. These public officials are not used to being challenged.”

Dan Wueste, director of an ethics institute at Clemson University, said the relationship between House members and their leader, regardless of the independence of the ethics panel, makes the committee’s work difficult.

“It’s not really different than expecting employees possibly to make judgment about their bosses, their managers,” Wueste said. “They have their own interests in success in their political career, and then there are the interests that are supposed to be first and foremost for them when they put on their hats as members of this committee that are supposed to make the judgment.”


Seanna Adcox contributed to this report. Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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