'The judge is wrong'
But such a high-profile scandal could threaten to drown out that narrative. Five months after news of the grand jury dropped, the twists and turns in this dramatic political story continue to grip the state. From the Drip coffee house on Main Street near the Statehouse to after-hours downtown political hangouts like Garibaldi Cafe, talk inevitably turns to the most recent bombshell in the titanic clash between two of the state's most prominent political players.
Now at issue: the explosive May 12 ruling by Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning in Columbia that ordered Wilson to drop his investigation. Assisted by two of the best attorneys in the state, both with long backgrounds in prosecuting and defending public corruption cases, Harrell had taken Wilson before a judge, trying to get him removed from the case. Harrell and his lawyers argued that Wilson had called a meeting with a legislative employee of Harrell’s and issued a veiled warning that he wanted a certain bill passed that gave the AG a new unit in state government to investigate public officials. But the judge didn’t rule on that matter, instead raising a much different one on his own. Did Wilson even have jurisdiction to investigate Harrell? The judge asked for briefs from both sides on that question and then ruled against Wilson.
“Despite multiple requests, the Attorney General has failed to offer or present to the Court any evidence or allegations which are criminal in nature,” Judge Manning wrote in his order, a line which shocked Wilson, who had said in court that he didn’t want to go into detail about the merits of the case in public because of confidentiality rules.
Furthermore, the judge wrote that while Wilson claims the case against the speaker “rises to the level of criminal activity under his jurisdiction,” violations of the Ethics Act are civil and not criminal in nature, a finding with which Wilson vigorously disagrees.
"The Attorney General's initiation of this matter is premature," Judge Manning wrote in his order. "Any investigation by the State Grand Jury at this stage is illegitimate."
Instead, the judge wrote that allegations of ethics violations against the speaker must first be heard in the House Ethics Committee. That's the panel made up of the speaker's colleagues, and staffed with people whom the speaker employs. Wilson said those potential conflicts were enough to decide to take on the case himself.
Two years ago, the same judge had ruled that a private citizen could not take Gov. Haley to court for alleged ethics violations that stemmed from her time as a House member. Instead, he’d ruled that a citizen must submit a formal complaint to the House Ethics Committee, which regulates the behavior of current and former members. That committee, then made up of five Republicans and one Democrat, eventually cleared Haley, a Republican herself, of wrongdoing. The public media circus, however, eventually led lawmakers to change the committee’s structure to include five members of each party.
But the idea that a judge might one day rule that the legislature is in effect the only place for a lawmaker like the speaker to face scrutiny over potential ethical violations that might or might not be criminal is, well, eliciting a fair amount of discussion. Indeed, during oral arguments before Circuit Judge Manning in court on May 2, South Carolina's three previous attorneys general, Travis Medlock, Charlie Condon and Henry McMaster, looked on in collective astonishment at the possibility of such a decision.
“Over the past thirty years, not one of us ever imagined the Attorney General needed authorization from a legislative committee or political body in order to investigate or prosecute alleged criminal behavior by an elected official,” the three wrote in a statement.
“The judge is wrong,” current Attorney General Wilson says flatly. He worries such a ruling could create a dangerous precedent undercutting the power of the attorney general's office. In his appeal to the state Supreme Court, the AG called it “unimaginable that the Legislature intended to grant itself immunity from criminal investigation.”
To hear Wilson tell it, the judge has basically created a world in which the only route for the speaker of the House in South Carolina to be prosecuted for criminal conduct under the Ethics Act, or public corruption in general, is through a complaint to a committee staffed by folks who work at the pleasure of the speaker. Meanwhile, the House members of that committee rely on the speaker for their appointments to other committees and of course need the speaker's help to pass legislation that's important to them and their constituents. Half of the committee's members have also taken campaign money from an influential political action committee with ties to the speaker.
“I don't think it's fair to the people of this state when one person, either the speaker or any other influential person, can control the very committee that polices them,” Wilson says. “I just think it's wrong.”
The House speaker's hometown newspaper, The (Charleston) Post & Courier, which first raised questions in September 2012 about the powerful lawmaker's use of campaign funds, has been outspoken on its editorial page about the problematic issue of having a self-policing legislature.
“One of the biggest shortcomings of ethics laws in this state is that legislators are allowed to make the call on complaints against their colleagues,” read an unsigned April editorial, while another stated that kicking the Harrell case to the House Ethics Committee would be “a particularly bad idea, in view of the broad influence that Speaker Harrell wields in the House.”
But Jay Bender, a lawyer who represents the South Carolina Press Association, says Manning's ruling has some practical benefit.
“I think it's good to decide the jurisdictional issue before anything else happens,” he says.
Not surprisingly, Speaker Harrell has applauded the judge’s ruling. He’s accused the AG of disobeying the law by keeping the probe going. And he’s thrown down the gauntlet at Wilson, calling on the attorney general to request a special prosecutor to investigate his own campaign finances for potential ethics violations. Throughout Wilson’s first term, reporters have exposed that Wilson failed to report more than $100,000 in campaign funds, received more than the maximum contributions from some donors, and even took campaign money from a lobbyist, which state law prohibits. Harrell has said that if all Ethics Act violations carry criminal penalties, then Wilson “himself is guilty of over 30 criminal violations, including accepting money from lobbyists, accepting money above the legal limit and failing to report a number of items.”
Wilson, who has amended his filings and given back money at the request of the State Ethics Commission, the independent body that regulates him as a statewide officeholder, brushes off his disastrous campaign finances as merely mistakes made by underlings.
A long, twisted history
South Carolina has a long, tortured history when it comes to ethics in government. Many here still remember the shock of a 1990 FBI sting that at the time represented the largest legislative vote-buying scandal in American history. Known as Operation Lost Trust, the sting nailed 17 South Carolina lawmakers for accepting bribes from a well-connected lobbyist whom the feds had flipped and wired up as an informant after they busted him with a kilo of cocaine. The news embarrassed the people of South Carolina, and led lawmakers to pass what became known as the State Ethics Act in 1991.
One of those who vividly remember the fallout from those dark days is John Crangle. A few miles from the Statehouse, the retired lawyer runs the state's chapter of Common Cause and has been spending evenings hammering away at a big metal typewriter in his office at nearby Limestone College, where he teaches political science. He's working on a book for the 25th anniversary of Lost Trust.
Back then, Crangle was the only lobbyist for the Ethics Act, and he helped write the bill. What he's watched transpire in recent months, he says, has been captivating. As the director of Common Cause, he’d worked with the Policy Council’s Landess on the complaint against the speaker. For years the groups hadn’t shared much of anything, but lately a crusade for ethics reform at the Statehouse has created a strange bedfellows coalition in South Carolina, bringing together liberal organizations with libertarian ones, good government groups and others more focused on conservation and the environment.
For Crangle, the current situation is a symptom of deep-rooted problems in the state’s culture that the political elite haven’t yet addressed. The system, he says, is riddled with conflicts.
For instance, South Carolina is the only state other than Virginia with a system by which state lawmakers alone elect state court judges, including members of the Supreme Court. The way Crangle sees it, perhaps never has there been as glaring an instance where conflicts in that system are so apparent. This winter in fact, a rare race for Supreme Court chief justice took place under the dome of the Statehouse, and Speaker Harrell actively campaigned for the incumbent, Jean Toal, lining up votes for her against an associate sitting justice who wanted the top job. Toal eventually won re-election, and as chief it is Toal who will preside over four other colleagues on the bench during the June 24 arguments about whether the attorney general’s investigation into the speaker can continue.
“I think that's an inherent difference that distinguishes South Carolina from 48 states and the federal government,” Crangle says. “Our government is a freak show in the sense that you have an abnormally powerful legislature doing things that legislatures in normal states don't do, like elect the judges and determine who the chief justice is.”
He’s sent a letter to Toal and her opponent in this winter’s race, Costa Pleicones, asking that the two recuse themselves from hearing the Harrell arguments because the speaker’s electioneering in their election represented a potential conflict of interest.
Meanwhile, as Wilson pushes his probe into the speaker, Crangle says, he wouldn’t have the black eye he’s sporting from his own campaign finance mess if the state had publicly funded elections for attorney general, a proposal Common Cause has long advocated.
As Crangle researches his book on Lost Trust, he’s feeling a sense of déjà vu. The state still has an extremely troubled political system and a law enforcement culture that tends to look the other way at potential public corruption, he says. For instance, the Lost Trust sting was not triggered by any legislators or local and state law enforcement, but rather by federal authorities. He sees the genesis of the recent high-stakes investigation into the speaker similarly. Outside groups like Common Cause, the Policy Council think tank and the media had to initiate it. Questions about Harrell's finances or business dealings hadn't been raised inside government or law enforcement in the near-decade he's been speaker or since he was elected to the House in 1993.
“Wilson didn’t want to do this; it took a cattle prod to get him moving in the right direction,” Crangle says, adding that the current AG is the first person “to really go after a high-profile political figure at the state level in my memory.”
Back in his office at the Statehouse complex, Wilson has been working as late as 11 p.m. preparing for the June 24 showdown at the high court; he's expected to personally argue before the five justices. “No man in this country is so high that he is above the law,” prosecutors in his office wrote in a 50-page legal brief for the hearing. The brief also called it “inconceivable that the General Assembly intended to make legislators a protected class as compared to other state officials and employees, to be prosecuted only when their colleagues consent.”
But even after the arguments take place in what's likely to be a packed courtroom just a block from the Statehouse, it’s becoming clear that this strange story won’t likely end even there.
“If the Supreme Court shuts down the state grand jury,” says Wilson, “what's to say we just don't keep investigating outside of the state grand jury?”