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South Carolina Legislation May Give House Speaker Say In Who Investigates Him

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BOBBY HARRELL
A new bill could allow South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R) to help select a special prosecutor that would investigate him. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- At least one Republican state lawmaker swept up in a corruption investigation may have found a clever way to respond: Pass a law that can block the probe.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson (R) is investigating whether state House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R) violated ethics laws. Harrell paid himself $325,000 out of his campaign's bank account as reimbursements for flights he piloted, according to FITSNews, a South Carolina politics news site.

A pair of bills introduced Wednesday in the South Carolina General Assembly with bipartisan support would allow the speaker, with his counterpart in the state Senate, to appoint a special prosecutor to look into ethics accusations against lawmakers, following a vote by legislators, according to The State newspaper. The bill says the special prosecutor would be "deemed to stand in the place of the attorney general when appointed."

State Rep. James Smith (D) told The State the bill would apply to lawmakers. The legislation would allow for the "the appointment of a special prosecutor for constitutional officers." Smith said legislators technically are "constitutional officers" -- their positions were made in the South Carolina constitution.

A bipartisan majority of legislators initially cosponsored the bills, which had been billed as clarifying who could investigate the attorney general, according to The State. But all Democratic members of the Assembly plan to remove their names from the legislation, according to a caucus spokesman, Tyler Jones. More than two dozen lawmakers have already done so, according to legislative records.

"House Democrats believe the special prosecutor bill, as written, is ripe for abuse and opens the door to public corruption," Jones said in a statement to The Huffington Post on Friday. "Under no circumstance should a member of the General Assembly have the ability to appoint a special prosecutor who would subsequently be tasked with investigating a fellow member of the General Assembly."

Though Harrell did not sponsor the bill, he has defended it, telling The State on Thursday that the legislation would not affect Wilson's investigation. "Just like members of the Judiciary, members of the General Assembly are not constitutional officers," Harrell said.

Harrell's lawyers are secretly trying to convince a state judge to remove Wilson from the ethics investigation of the speaker, The State reported last month, citing anonymous "sources close to law enforcement who are familiar with situation."

Wilson is facing questions about his own campaign filings following a report last week by The Post and Courier, which found he had failed to disclose $88,000 in contributions, and had accepted $75,000 from donors above the legal limit.

The second bill would remove language from the state constitution that states, "The attorney general shall be the chief prosecuting officer of the state with authority to supervise the prosecution of all criminal cases in courts of record."

The conservative advocacy group South Carolina Policy Council blasted the legislation in a scathing analysis Wednesday, claiming the first bill would violate the state constitution and the companion bill was offered by legislators "in order to get around the problem." The organization wrote that the timing "strongly suggests an attempt by House lawmakers to shield the Speaker from prosecution. If this is true, it is a reprehensible use of legislators’ power to make laws."

FITSNews reported that several legislators believe they were misled about the legislation. A House Democratic source made a similar charge in a conversation with HuffPost, claiming that some Democrats were led by the speaker's allies to believe the bill would let them appoint a special prosecutor to investigate some of Gov. Nikki Haley's (R) cabinet members.

Smith told The State that he will propose a separate bill -- in order resolve the question of who could prosecute an attorney general -- that would permit lawmakers to request a special prosecutor in certain ethics cases to prevent conflicts of interest.

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