April 2, 2014

Editorial | Public almost shut out of speaker’s court hearing

The following editorial appeared Tuesday in The (Hilton Head) Island Packet:

The following editorial appeared Tuesday in The (Hilton Head) Island Packet:

It’s a telling revelation that Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, a Charleston lawmaker and one of the state’s most powerful politicians, secretly attempted to get state Attorney General Alan Wilson, the state’s top attorney and a fellow Republican, thrown off a grand jury investigation into Harrell’s activities.

Harrell is accused of ethics violations and abuse of his office.

In the surly world of S.C. politics, it’s no surprise that elected officials butt heads and work against one another in covert ways. But Harrell’s and his attorneys’ attempts to do so by defying long-held court precedence and cloaking court proceedings in darkness is another matter entirely.

It provides bothersome proof that Harrell is not as committed to transparency as his post requires. The public should keep this in mind going forward as Harrell continues to play a large role in setting the House’s agenda, assigning House members to committees and presiding over House procedures.

One of Harrell’s lawyers, Bart Daniel, has told reporters that the only reason the request for a hearing had been made under seal was that grand jury matters are always secret, leaving Harrell’s legal team no choice.

But a motion to disqualify Wilson as prosecutor had nothing to do with the actual Secret Grand Jury investigation. Additionally, Daniel failed to point out that the legal team’s flawed logic is convenient for those who wish to circumvent public engagement.

Luckily, reporter John Monk of The (Columbia) State newspaper got wind of Harrell’s request for a secret hearing. The S.C. Press Association, along with several newspapers and TV stations, wrote a brief to the judge, emphasizing the country’s and the state’s long-held practice of open courts and why it matters.

“Harrell’s prominence in the affairs of the State of South Carolina demands that any judicial proceeding concerning him be open for scrutiny by public and press so that the public may have confidence that ‘justice was in fact done,'” wrote attorney Jay Bender, representing the media outlets.

Judge Casey Manning opened the hearing to all who wanted to attend after acknowledging objections raised by the press. That open hearing provided clues as to why Harrell believes Wilson is unfit to lead the investigation.

In essence, Harrell’s chief of staff Brad Wright claimed on the stand that Wilson threatened him during a private meeting. And that Wilson’s behavior is proof of his unfitness to lead the investigation.

Wright said Wilson pounded his desk during the meeting and angrily told Wright to tell Harrell he better support the formation of a Public Integrity Unit in an ethics bill under consideration in the House at the time. Wright said Wilson also said he “had friends with deep pockets who could make this an issue if he had to” – a comment Wright believed to be a threat. Wright said he left the meeting shaken, told other attorneys about it and wrote a memo about the encounter.

On the stand, Wilson refuted Wright’s description of the meeting, denying that he ever pounded his fists on the desk.

Wilson added that if he had done anything wrong, it was meeting with Wright in private. Typically, Wilson said he brings staffers to meetings who can serve as witnesses to the conversation.

We agree that Wilson did show poor judgment by meeting with Wright one-on-one, making it anyone’s guess as to what really happened in the meeting. No supporting evidence exists to determine whether a threat was made or whether Wilson’s behavior was so inappropriate as to disqualify him from leading a grand jury investigation. It’s simply a he-said-he-said matter at this point.

In the absence of other evidence, we see no reason why Wilson should be removed from the case.

Both sides have submitted briefs to the court and await a ruling from the judge on whether Wilson will be ejected.

No matter which side prevails, unfortunate facts have already come to light on how Harrell conducts business.

Transparency was not his priority this time, and it may not be again in the future.

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