Attorneys representing House Speaker Bobby Harrell and state Attorney General Alan Wilson made their case before the South Carolina Supreme Court Tuesday.
The justices are considering Wilson’s appeal of a lower court ruling last month which ordered the State Grand Jury to stop investigating Harrell and instead turn an ethics complaint over to the House Ethics Committee.
The crux of Tuesday’s hearing was whether or not the Grand Jury had been investigating criminal or civil charges at the time. The Attorney General’s Office previously argued the state constitution gives it the power to investigate criminal wrongdoing by any state official. Harrell’s attorneys insist that the allegations against Harrell (who has not been charged) are civil in nature and should be handled by the Ethics Committee.
“The fact that the Grand Jury was empaneled… is not in itself evidence of any criminal activity,” Harrell’s attorney Bobby Stepp argued.
However the AG’s Office maintained that state law bans it from commenting on the ongoing Grand Jury investigation. “We’re at the beginning of this process, not the end,” Deputy Attorney General S. Creighton Waters said. “I think the (lower) judge treated it as if it… were an indictment or warrant. That’s just not the case.”
Earlier this month, the justices ruled the State Grand Jury could continue meeting during Wilson’s appeal. However, the justices rejected Wilson’s request to show them the sealed evidence from the Grand Jury proceedings (ruling he had not revealed the evidence at the lower court hearing).
But justices appeared frustrated at times that the Attorney General’s Office could not elaborate on whether or not the Grand Jury was conducting a criminal investigation. Chief Justice Jean Toal asked Waters what criminal matters were being considered by the Grand Jury.
“We can’t talk about this publicly… These are secret documents,” Waters answered.
“Well, I mean, the (Attorney General) has talked about some of these matters publicly, Mr. Waters,” Toal responded back. Wilson has previously spoken about his office’s handling of the case during interviews with reporters, but has never elaborated on any criminal accusations against Harrell.
Libertarian-leaning think tank South Carolina Policy Council President Ashley Landess initially accused Harrell of using his powerful position for personal benefit, including getting a permit for his pharmaceutical business, appointing his brother to a judicial-candidate screening committee, and improperly using campaign funds to pay for a plane he uses to fly to Columbia from his home district in Charleston.
Landess filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office last year, sidestepping the House Ethics Committee. Landess complained that Speaker Harrell’s power in the House created a conflict of interest.
Wilson asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate the allegations. In January, he turned SLED’s findings over to the State Grand Jury.
Harrell has repeatedly maintained he has done nothing wrong and is the victim of politically motivated attacks on his reputation.
Stepp said the entire case has tarnished his client’s reputation. “It has clouded the atmosphere of all this case, to where everybody walking around reading the newspaper thinks he’s — if not guilty– at least suspected of criminal activity,” Stepp told the justices.
Neither Harrell nor Wilson testified before the court on Tuesday.
The justices will make a ruling at a later date. The Supreme Court does not normally announce the date when they will release a decision.