WASHINGTON -- South Carolina's Republican state House speaker, who is facing a grand jury investigation on corruption allegations, wants a state court to end the probe and allow his colleagues to decide first if he has done anything wrong.
In February 2013, a watchdog group filed a complaint with the state attorney general alleging that Speaker Bobby Harrell (R) had improperly paid himself $325,000 in campaign funds for flights he piloted. The group also accused him of pressuring regulators on behalf of his business. Attorney General Alan Wilson (R) convened a grand jury to look into the complaint in January, after a 10-month investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division.
Lawyers for Harrell will argue in a hearing next week before the court that oversees the grand jury that the attorney general lacks jurisdiction and that the case should be moved to the House Ethics Committee, the Charleston Post and Courier reported Tuesday. Harrell's lawyer, Gedney Howe, told the paper, "The ethics committee has the exclusive jurisdiction. That's the only entity with jurisdiction."
Ethics advocates argue that shifting the case to the House panel would essentially kill the investigation.
"The House Ethics Committee is nothing but a fraud," said John Crangle, who leads Common Cause South Carolina, in an interview with The Huffington Post. "It's never done anything. To send it to the House Ethics Committee is basically to deep-six it, which is exactly what Harrell would like to do."
A spokesman for Harrell did not return a request for comment.
A pair of bipartisan House bills were introduced this month that would allow Harrell and the state Senate leader to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue ethics accusations against legislators, rather than leaving such matters to the attorney general. But lawmakers quickly deserted the bills, and they appear unlikely to get a vote in the Senate, according to The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. An editorial in the paper last week counted the effort as Harrell's fifth attempt to stop the investigation.
The latest argument -- that the grand jury lacks jurisdiction -- is unusual, Crangle said. The lawyer told the Post and Courier on Tuesday, "I've never heard of anybody trying to stop a state grand jury probe -- that's basically what they're trying to do." He told HuffPost that the state constitution gives the attorney general "plain authority to prosecute all criminal matters."
The South Carolina Policy Council, which brought the complaint against Harrell, argued in its February 2013 letter to the attorney general that the matter poses a conflict of interest for the House panel. As speaker, Harrell hires the House Ethics Committee's staff, would be responsible for authorizing an independent investigator and can call a House session to appeal the committee's conclusions, the conservative group said.
Further, the group believes that the attorney general should have jurisdiction because the accusations rise to a criminal level. "What we alleged was public corruption, which is a felony," said Ashley Landess, the South Carolina Policy Council's president, in a briefing with reporters Wednesday.
Landess said she decided to bring the complaint last year to the attorney general instead of to the House Ethics Committee after an informal meeting with its chairman, Rep. Kenny Bingham (R). Landess said that Bingham "expressed concern that the ethics committee would have some problems taking this." Landess said her impression was that Bingham felt his committee was not qualified to investigate the case.
Bingham told the Post and Courier on Wednesday that the attorney general is better suited to look into the complaint, though his committee could employ outside counsel. "We're a civil body. What she was alleging is elements of public corruption and criminal behavior. We're not a police department," he told the paper.
Crangle said he fears that Circuit Court Judge L. Casey Manning will refer the Harrell case to the House committee, citing his earlier decision in 2012 to move an ethics complaint filed against now-Gov. Nikki Haley (R) back to the House. Haley, then a state representative, was accused of lobbying illegally. The House committee dismissed the allegations against her three months later.
"I don't see how in the world Judge Manning could remand this matter to the House Ethics Committee, on the law and the facts," Crangle told HuffPost. "But, because South Carolina is extremely political -- I believe that we really don't have the rule of law in South Carolina, we have politics instead -- anything is possible."