Ethics probe

Speaker Harrell beefs up legal team; AG Wilson asks SC Supreme Court to keep Harrell investigation matters sealed

jmonk@thestate.comMay 27, 2014 

— Although a S.C. Supreme Court hearing to decide whether Attorney General Alan Wilson can investigate House Speaker Bobby Harrell is four weeks off, the two powerful politicians are already battling it out in pre-hearing legal filings.

Harrell has also hired three of the state’s most experienced appeals lawyers for his legal team. Up until now that team has consisted of two of the state’s top criminal lawyers — Bart Daniel and Gedney Howe.

Harrell’s new lawyers — Robert Stepp, Robert Tyson and Roland Franklin, all of Columbia — promptly launched another legal attack aimed at shutting down Wilson’s ongoing criminal investigation of Harrell, according to court filings.

At issue in the historic clash between an attorney general and a House speaker is whether a prosecutor can launch a criminal ethics investigation of State House and Senate members without first getting permission of state lawmakers. SLED and a State Grand Jury, under Wilson’s direction, have been investigating Harrell — without that permission.

Harrell and his lawyers insist that before Wilson and SLED can investigate Harrell, state law requires that Wilson and SLED get the approval of the State House Ethics Committee. That 10-member committee is made up of Harrell’s friends and colleagues, five of whom have received a total of $13,000 in donations from a Harrell-associated political action committee.

In other pre-hearing legal action, Wilson and his own in-house legal team have filed papers with the Supreme Court, asking the high court to keep sealed three items involving the ongoing secret State Grand Jury investigation.

The matter is before the Supreme Court because on May 12, Judge Casey Manning ordered Wilson to halt his criminal investigation of Harrell. The House Ethics Committee is the proper place to investigate ethics violations against Harrell, Manning ruled. Wilson appealed Manning’s order, putting the matter in the justices’ hands.

The Supreme Court has ordered a June 24 hearing. That hearing will decide whether Wilson and SLED can continue their criminal investigation of Harrell with the State Grand Jury.

The three items under seal Wilson wants the justices to review in secret are:

• The case initiation memo and supporting affidavit. These set forth reasons why Wilson believed a criminal investigation of Harrell is necessary.

• Wilson’s petition to the State Grand Jury. This states the topics the grand jury is to look into.

• The order signed by Judge Manning in January of this year authorizing the State Grand Jury to start a criminal investigation of Harrell. Manning is the same judge who ordered Wilson to stop his investigation earlier this month.

In a memo supporting his request to keep the documents under seal, Wilson stressed the justices will be able to see for themselves that criminal matters are under investigation. Manning, in his May 12 order, wrote that no criminal matters were being investigated.

“The documents ... are obviously and directly relevant to any claim that the State Grand Jury is investigating beyond its jurisdiction,” Wilson wrote.

The Supreme Court has so far allowed Wilson to continue his investigation until the justices reach a final decision.

As of late Tuesday, the Supreme Court had made no ruling on whether to view Wilson’s three sets of documents.

Harrell’s legal team has also filed a motion requesting the Supreme Court halt Wilson’s ongoing investigation because there are “unresolved issues” regarding an alleged conflict of interest involving Wilson. The motion did not say what that alleged conflict was. The motion did say that Manning did not rule on that alleged conflict and the Supreme Court should consider it.

Manning’s May 12 order only concerned the subject of whether the House Ethics Committee or Wilson’s State Grand Jury had jurisdiction over the alleged ethics violations.

Wilson’s office declined comment Tuesday.

Bart Daniel, a lawyer for Harrell, was not available for immediate comment.

A spokesman for Harrell did not respond to an email request Tuesday asking if Harrell is spending taxpayer money on his legal team.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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