SC legislators say they should have power to appoint prosecutor to probe colleagues

ashain@thestate.comApril 10, 2014 

— Some S.C. lawmakers want the ability to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate criminal ethics allegations against their colleagues as well as the state’s top political officials.

More than 80 S.C. House members sponsored a bill, introduced this week, that they say should end questions about who can investigate any allegations against the state’s top prosecutor, the attorney general. The bill says lawmakers should have the power to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate “constitutional officers,” including the attorney general and governor, and officials who can be removed by the governor.

But some state representatives also said the proposal would allow them to vote to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate fellow legislators, instead of having the attorney general oversee such cases.

That proposed change is not simply an academic question. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, R-Lexington, now is leading a State Grand Jury investigation into allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

If the proposal now were law, the House and Senate could remove Wilson from investigating those allegations against Harrell, one of the state’s most powerful politicians, said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.

Harrell is accused of misusing campaign money and his legislative position for personal gain, charges he denies.

Smith, an attorney for Wilson’s campaign, says the proposal’s “constitutional officer” language includes lawmakers since their positions were created in the state Constitution.

But Harrell, who has asked a state court to remove Wilson from leading a State Grand Jury investigation into the allegations against him, disagrees.

“Just like members of the Judiciary, members of the General Assembly are not constitutional officers,” said Harrell, who is not a sponsor of the bill. “Representatives of the attorney general’s office are trying to bring me into this debate in an obvious effort to distract from the ethical problems he is currently facing.”

Wilson, a Lexington County Republican, has come under criticism for his 2010 and 2014 campaign filings, which failed to list some contributions and included some donations above the limits set by state law.

Another bill, introduced in the House, would remove language from the state Constitution that says the attorney general is the chief prosecuting officer in South Carolina.

Questions about who can prosecute allegations against the attorney general were raised in recent news reports about changes in Wilson’s campaign contribution filings, said House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville.

Wilson has not been cited for violations by the S.C. Ethics Commission, which gives candidates time to correct errors in campaign filings without penalties. The attorney general has updated his campaign reports, including listing contributions that had been missing and refunding over-the-limit donations, his campaign said.

While more than half the 124 members of the House originally sponsored the proposal, reaction to the bill outside the House was cool.

Watchdog groups said the House proposal was a bad idea.

The bill would give more authority to the state’s already powerful Legislature, said John Crangle, state director for the government watchdog Common Cause.

The attorney’s general office said it was not contacted before the bills were introduced, a typical and common courtesy.

“We have confidence in the deliberative process of the General Assembly, and believe that members of the House and Senate will, ultimately, act in the public interest,” said Mark Powell, a spokesman for the attorney general.

The attorney general already can step away from controversial investigations.

The attorney general can assign cases that pose a potential conflict of interest to a solicitor, Wilson’s office said. A judge also can assign a solicitor to oversee a case that is before the State Grand Jury, the attorney general’s office said.

However, under the House proposal, the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore could appoint a special prosecutor if the move was approved by the General Assembly.

Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, the Richland County Republican who is the leader of the state Senate, said he is not interested in assigning a special prosecutor for cases against legislators. Courson, who sits on the Senate Ethics Committee, added the attorney general has an incentive to avoid ethics violations because he could be voted out of office.

And, by Thursday, some state representatives were walking away from the proposal that they originally had sponsored. More than 20 sponsors had dropped off the bills, Smith said.

Smith said he is working to introduce another bill that would allow the General Assembly to ask for a special prosecutor in ethics cases involving public officials. That would eliminate conflicts of interest that might arise when the attorney general is involved in prosecuting cases, he said. Smith said his bill would not call for changing the Constitution.

Smith said he would run the new proposal by the attorney general’s office.

Smith acknowledged the chances of passing his proposal before the June end of the legislative session are unlikely. But he said he wants to get a conversation started. Smith also said delaying passage of any bill also could help end speculation that action by the House could impact the Harrell investigation.

“There are some important issues here,” he said.

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