COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s high court on Thursday said an investigation into one of the state’s top lawmakers could continue while prosecutors appeal a judge’s decision to halt that process.
The Supreme Court’s order at least temporarily overturns a ruling by Circuit Judge Casey Manning, who said last week that Attorney General Alan Wilson had improperly empaneled a State Grand Jury to investigate corruption allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
In his order, Manning said courts could not consider such a case against a lawmaker until a legislative ethics panel has reviewed it.
Harrell’s attorneys agree, but Wilson says the ruling infringes on his role as the state’s top prosecutor. Wilson is appealing Manning’s order, and both sides are set to make arguments before the high court on June 24.
The order issued by justices Thursday allows Wilson to continue his investigation in the meantime.
The South Carolina Policy Council, a libertarian-leaning, pro-limited government think tank, brought a complaint to Wilson alleging that Harrell had used his influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business and improperly appointed his brother to a judicial candidate screening committee.
Wilson sent that case to the State Law Enforcement Division, which investigated for nearly a year. The prosecutor had been in the process of presenting those findings to the State Grand Jury when lawyers for the powerful Charleston Republican challenged his authority in court.
The House Ethics Committee, the panel that Manning said should hear such charges, can only consider civil allegations. The judge said Wilson had presented no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Wilson disagreed, saying that state police don’t investigate civil cases and that, even though the case was initiated by a citizen’s complaint, that’s not unusual.
“Undoubtedly, the appropriate Ethics Committee … has exclusive jurisdiction as to the civil regulatory authority, but the Attorney General has the exclusive power to handle criminal matters,” Wilson wrote. “The vast majority of criminal investigations start with citizen complaints.”
Harrell’s lawyers have said his case should be dealt with by the legislative panel. In a statement issued Thursday, the speaker reiterated his view that Wilson’s actions were politically motivated and said he planned to ask the high court to order the prosecutor to stop his investigation while the case is on appeal.
“This clearly displayed bias by the Attorney General would taint any further investigation conducted by him on this matter,” Harrell said. “Lacking a fair and impartial prosecutor handling this matter, we are filing a motion asking the Supreme Court to stay any further investigation by the Attorney General until this appeal process is finished.”