Although an attorney for House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) had announced to the press that a second hearing would be held April 30 into whether his client should be prosecuted for public corruption before a state grand jury by Attorney General Alan Wilson, the real date of that hearing — much anticipated by an anxious political class — remains a mystery.
“We’ve not been informed of any hearing date,” Mark Powell, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Monday afternoon. Gedney Howe, Harrell’s famously wily Charleston attorney who told The Post and Courier that Wednesday was the hearing date, did not respond to Free Times’ requests for comment by press time.
The Post and Courier has also reported that Harrell’s lawyers intend to ask Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning to kick the case over to the House Ethics Committee, arguing that is the only appropriate body to decide on long-standing allegations of ethics violations by Harrell.
Harrell’s critics, including those who took the public corruption complaint to the attorney general, have blasted such a request as a crass, tone-deaf attempt to evade justice, given the extensive influence the speaker wields among state representatives, of whom the House Ethics Committee is comprised.
The South Carolina Policy Council — whose president, Ashley Landess, took the complaint to Wilson — points to Harrell’s wide-ranging authority to make appointments to powerful commissions and alleged ability to steer political donations from his deep-pocketed political action committee as compelling reasons for lawmakers to overlook any ethical misconduct by him.
The Policy Council made its official complaint to Wilson public last week, saying it had done so in order to show that it had always alleged “an ongoing pattern of abuse of power” that rises “to the level of public corruption.” Specifically the complaint alleges abuse of office for personal enrichment, including an attempt to bully the state Board of Pharmacy into benefiting his private business interests and dipping into campaign funds for personal use.
Because such malfeasance would violate the state’s criminal code in addition to its ethics law, the Policy Council and its allies argue that the House Ethics Committee doesn’t have full jurisdiction over the case or the capacity to conduct a credible investigation, with its purview limited to infractions of the latter category.
“This whole thing is extremely abnormal. It’s like something from a Franz Kafka novel,” says John Crangle, an attorney and veteran government watchdog who heads up Common Cause South Carolina.
Crangle, who has worked closely with the libertarian-minded Policy Council and an alliance of strange bedfellows in targeting Harrell, now worries that the slow pace of the legal procedures could be a winning delay tactic.
“The statute of limitations says that anything that happens four years before a complaint is filed has no criminal liability anymore,” Crangle says. “Well, a lot of the stuff that Bobby has been doing has been going on for a lot longer than four years, but as long as this process is delayed, before criminal charges are filed by Wilson or someone else, the more of what the man has done is absolved.”
For now, South Carolina’s biggest potential corruption case since Operation Lost Trust — the FBI’s wide-ranging takedown of South Carolina politicos in a 1990s vote-buying scandal — remains in a holding pattern.