Media lawyer: Court's secrecy note not a surprise

Associated PressJuly 10, 2014 

— Critics of House Speaker Bobby Harrell said Thursday they're concerned by the state Supreme Court's call for secrecy in future court arguments in his case.

But media attorney Jay Bender said he thinks the justices only recognized the secrecy of grand juries.

On Wednesday, the state's high court unanimously overturned a lower court's decision and said Attorney General Alan Wilson has the authority to investigate Harrell and empanel a state grand jury to consider allegations the powerful Charleston Republican abused his power for personal benefit.

That lower court must now decide whether Wilson should be removed from the case, as Harrell initially sought in his February motion. The justices noted Judge Casey Manning had raised questions about Wilson's jurisdiction on his own.

Harrell, speaker since 2005, maintains he's done nothing wrong. He's called the allegations and investigation politically motivated.

Bender, a freedom of information expert, does not represent any parties in the case but does represent the news media, including The Associated Press.

He said he's not disturbed by a footnote in the ruling, which orders future arguments on jurisdiction and related issues to be held in private. Such hearings will likely involve what the grand jury is hearing, he said.

Bender noted that Wilson wanted to present sealed grand jury evidence to the Supreme Court as part of his appeal. The justices did not allow it, saying he can't use documents on appeal that were never presented to Manning.

By law, state grand juries operate in private. Bender said there's a difference between the two open hearings that Manning held and future hearings that concern what the grand jury is considering.

"I don't think this changes anything," Bender said about the one-sentence footnote. "I think the Supreme Court of South Carolina remains committed to open courts."

In May, Manning said Wilson hadn't shown any criminal evidence against Harrell, and the House Ethics Committee needed to deal with a civil complaint first. But the high court said Wilson's prosecutorial power operates separately from the legislative ethics process.

Two people who asked Wilson to take the case directly believe future hearings should be open too. They have argued legislators can't impartially investigate Harrell.

"I don't see any reason why arguments on jurisdiction should be held in secret," said John Crangle of Common Cause.

Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council — a libertarian-leaning, pro-limited-government think tank — said grand jury evidence should have no bearing on whether Wilson remains on the case.

"Bobby Harrell is not entitled to an impartial prosecutor," she said.

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