Prosecuting the powerful may pose risks for S.C. attorney general

The (Columbia) StateJanuary 18, 2014 

COLUMBIA -- In his first term as attorney general, Alan Wilson has overseen the prosecutions or investigations of at least seven public officials. Now Wilson has his most high-profile case, referring ethics allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell to the State Grand Jury. For Wilson, the stakes are high.

One of the biggest cases of Henry McMaster's career as S.C. attorney general involved the prosecution of six people for investment fraud, including a popular former lieutenant governor and a big-time GOP donor, both from the Upstate.

McMaster won six convictions, all upheld on appeal. But when McMaster later ran for the Republican nomination for governor, aides say, the Carolinas Investors cases cost him as much as $300,000 in campaign contributions in the Upstate.

"If anything hurt Henry McMaster, it was the prosecution of Earle Morris," veteran GOP political consultant Warren Tompkins of Columbia said last week, referring to the late lieutenant governor from Pickens County.

Now comes Alan Wilson, the 40-year-old GOP attorney general from Lexington who succeeded McMaster.

In his first term, Wilson has already prosecuted or instigated investigations of at least seven public officials, including a sitting lieutenant governor - Ken Ard, who resigned in 2012. Last week, Wilson shook up S.C. politics again by referring ethics allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell to the State Grand Jury.

While Ard's post was largely ceremonial, Republican Harrell is powerful.

His Charleston political base is among the state's wealthiest areas, allowing the speaker to raise $555,000 for a 2012 election that he won with 74 percent of the vote, hardly a tight contest that required big bucks to win. A political action committee that Harrell started but is no longer associated with, the Palmetto Leadership Council, raised another $1.6 million for the 2012 elections. It donated to every nearly Republican lawmaker in the state - and Wilson.

Wilson widely is seen as a potential candidate for governor in 2018 or some other statewide seat. But if McMaster's prosecution of a lesser former politician cost him $300,000, what could the investigation of Harrell cost Wilson?

"The process is fraught with peril for all involved," Tompkins said.

'More than just disappointing'

Harrell - who as speaker controls the agenda of the House of Representatives, including Wilson's budget - already is putting pressure on Wilson.

Wilson told the media about the Grand Jury investigation of Harrell on Monday - the day before lawmakers and journalists descended upon the State House for the start of the 2014 legislative session.

"I fully expected any day now there would be a release form the AG's office saying the investigation was over and there was no factual reason to pursue it any further," Harrell told a press conference Tuesday. "To have that expectation and then get blindsided by the events of yesterday is more than just disappointing.

"I also don't believe it is a coincidence that this release was made on the eve of the legislative session. I believe it was intended to inflict political damage to me."

Harrell has called the allegations, based on a complaint filed by libertarian S.C. Policy Council president Ashley Landess, a "personal vendetta." Asked if he thought Wilson had a personal vendetta against him, Harrell said, "You'll have to ask the attorney general."

Wilson, son of 2nd District U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, declined to be interviewed for this story.

But Wilson has been distancing himself from fellow Republican Harrell.

Last year, after Wilson referred the allegations against Harrell to SLED for investigation, the attorney general returned $7,000 in campaign contributions connected to Harrell.

'Uncharted territory'

This is not Wilson's first politically charged case.

In 2012, he prosecuted former Lt. Gov. Ard on ethics charges. Ard's resignation led to longtime Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston - then considered the most powerful man in state government - giving up his Senate seat for the less consequential duties of lieutenant governor.

In 2012 and 2013, Wilson referred to SLED allegations of ethics violations against state Treasurer Curtis Loftis and Retirement Investment Commission chairman Reynolds Williams. But, after receiving SLED's investigative reports, Wilson declined to prosecute either.

Last year, Wilson referred to SLED allegations of ethics violations involving former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston. Ford resigned from the Senate last spring. Wilson's office also has overseen the trial and convictions of two state representatives on charges of failing to pay their state taxes on time.

But the allegations against Harrell are different.

"This is uncharted territory here," said Democratic political consultant Lachlan McIntosh, who is based in Charleston and has run several Lowcountry campaigns. "He went after Ken Ard, but nobody really cared because Ken Ard was not a very important figure.

"But he's going after a powerful person who has powerful allies, and it will be interesting to see what happens," McIntosh said. "Theoretically, it shouldn't hurt him for doing his job. But South Carolina is a different animal."

'You have to do your job'

McMaster, who served two terms as attorney general before losing in the Republican primary for governor, shrugged off the political consequences of his Carolina Investors trial.

When he was the U.S. attorney for South Carolina, McMaster oversaw "Operation Jackpot," the marijuana smuggling sting that led to charges against more than 100 people on drug charges.

"We had 133 defendants, I think, and a lot of them were friends I had in childhood as well as in college," he said. "You just can't worry about that stuff. You have to do your job."

Allies say Wilson already has proven he ignores politics in doing his job as the state's top prosecutor.

Wilson's closest political adviser, Richard Quinn of Columbia, said he was angry with Wilson in 2012 when he did not give him advance warning about Ard's indictment.

Quinn said he would have liked to have had more time to consult with another political client - McConnell - about whether he should become lieutenant governor or resign as Senate president pro tempore to save his state Senate seat.

"A lot of other public people I have known are usually willing to trust their political advisers and share information that has to do with the decision making of their office in order to get political advice," Quinn said.

"He doesn't do that," Quinn said of Wilson. "I think that will turn out to be an asset for him in the long run because people want their elected officials to conduct their duties honorably ... rather than always trying to put a wet finger to the wind."

If that is how voters and donors think of Wilson after the Harrell investigation, he could emerge as a strong candidate in the future, according to GOP consultant Wesley Donehue.

"It gets him on the front page of every newspaper," Donehue said of the Harrell investigation. "Whether right or wrong, he shows he's got the (guts) to go after the most powerful man in South Carolina.

"I just don't see any way this hurts Alan Wilson."

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