A state circuit judge has sided with South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell, ruling Monday that an ongoing State Grand Jury review is “null and void.”
According to a draft of the ruling (it had not been filed as of 6:00 pm Monday), Judge Casey Manning ruled that state law only allows the House Ethics Committee to consider ethics violations by one of its members. He ordered the Grand Jury to stop considering evidence in the case. The ruling was a setback to State Attorney General Alan Wilson, who had forwarded the case to the Grand Jury following a State Law Enforcement Division investigation.
“Despite multiple requests, the Attorney General has failed to offer or present to the Court any evidence or allegations which are criminal in nature,” Manning wrote in the ruling, first published on the FitsNews political blog. He added that any alleged ethics violations are the “exclusive jurisdiction” of the House Ethics Committee.
Wilson’s office slammed the ruling. “We believe today’s order of Judge Manning is without any foundation or support in the law,” Wilson said in a statement. “This Office will vigorously pursue all appellate remedies and will seek to continue this investigation.” He had previously argued the Ethics Committee would have a conflict of interest due to Harrell’s influence in the House.
Harrell applauded the ruling, saying he was the victim of a “vindictive smear campaign.” “This entire process – both the mishandling of this matter and the allegations made – reeks of politics,” he said in a long statement Monday. “The Court’s ruling supports what we have said from the start, that these allegations are political and do not rise to the level of criminal wrongdoing.”
He also criticized Wilson for releasing the ruling before it was officially posted (FitsNews did not say how it obtained the document). Wilson and Harrell are both Republicans and are both facing re-election this year. Both are also projected to win easily.
Wilson’s sentiments were echoed by the libertarian thinktank South Carolina Policy Council, which filed the original complaint last year. “It’s unclear to us where Judge Manning got the authority to make this decision at all,” spokesman Barton Swaim said. “The constitution is clear: the Attorney General has the authority to investigate any public official if he thinks allegations of public corruption are credible.”
Swaim said he expected the Attorney General to appeal the ruling. A spokesman for the AG’s Office could not immediately be reached.
Judge Manning wrote that Wilson improperly convened the Grand Jury and could only do so if the House Ethics Committee referred the case to his office for further investigation.
Emboldened by the ruling, Harrell again called on Wilson’s office to release the SLED investigation report. Wilson previously argued state law would not allow him to do so until the Grand Jury reached a decision.
Harrell has previously said he does not know the SLED report’s contents, but believes it would exonerate him.