COLUMBIA, SC — The S.C. Supreme Court has told Attorney General Alan Wilson it does not want to see several state grand jury-related documents now under seal that Wilson says would show his investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell does, in fact, involve potentially criminal matters.
The ruling, contained in Supreme Court filings on the historic Harrell-Wilson legal battle, was made late last week, well in advance of an upcoming June 24 hearing. At that time, the high court will hear arguments on whether to halt Wilson’s ongoing criminal probe of Harrell and turn the matter over to the House Ethics Committee.
Wilson had asked justices to let him show the material that is now under seal because, Wilson said in court documents, that material will help prove that the matters involving Harrell are criminal in nature.
But in a unanimous order, the justices said the three items Wilson wants the court to consider are not part of the ongoing record in Judge Casey Manning’s court and therefore could not be considered by the Supreme Court in the June 24 hearing.
After a May 2 hearing before Manning on the nature of Wilson’s investigation, Manning ruled that Wilson must halt his ongoing state grand jury investigation of Harrell because Wilson had not shown he was investigating criminal matters. Wilson appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the matters were in fact criminal.
Harrell’s lawyers are arguing that Wilson is investigating civil matters that should be handled by the House Ethics Committee, a 10-member group made up of Harrell’s friends and colleagues. Five of the members have received a total of $13,000 in campaign contributions from a Harrell-affiliated PAC; all the members depend on Harrell, who chooses their committee assignments.
John Crangle, executive director of S.C. Common Cause, a public advocacy group, said Monday Wilson likely was not hurt by the Supreme Court’s refusal to see his documents.
“Its ruling was technical in nature,” Crangle said. “The court, as a general rule, only considers matters that were a part of the lower court record.”
Crangle said Wilson’s key issues - whether he has a right under the state constitution to conduct investigations he believes are criminal in nature, and whether he needs permission from the House Ethics Committee to investigate members on ethical matters - are still intact.
According to Wilson’s legal briefs, the material Wilson wanted the justices to review involved three key areas: a petition to the state grand jury to begin its investigation; a document stating why the investigation should be started; and a judicial order initiating the state grand jury investigation. All three documents would presumably contain allegations.
In his brief, Wilson told the high court he had mentioned some of the matters at a May 2 hearing before Manning, but Manning told Wilson he didn’t want Wilson to give details.
“We don’t need to go too far; I know what you’re saying,” Manning told Wilson at the May 2 hearing, according to a court transcript.
Wilson already has got the justices to side with him on one key issue: over the objection of Harrell’s lawyers, the justices said he could continue the state grand jury investigation of Harrell for the time being.
At issue in the whole matter is a simple question: Does the state’s top prosecutor, Wilson, have the right to initiate a state grand jury investigation of S.C. House members for possible criminal violations of state ethics laws?
Harrell is under investigation for allegedly converting large amounts of campaign contributions for personal expenses. Campaign contributions are supposed to be used for political purposes. Harrell has said he has done nothing wrong and claimed Wilson is on a witch hunt.