By Paul Gable
The ongoing legal challenge over whether S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson can use the State Grand Jury to investigate ethics violation allegations against S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell will go a long way to answering the question of whether Harrell is the most powerful individual in the state.
Attorneys representing Harrell challenged Wilson’s right to investigate Harrell during a March 21, 2014 hearing before S.C. Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning.
Should Manning rule in Harrell’s favor, he will effectively establish in law what has been long established in fact, namely, S.C. legislators are above the law.
The South Carolina Constitution is a 19th Century document that is more about pushing back against Reconstruction than it is about good government.
The document makes the General Assembly the dominant force in state politics, to the detriment of government in South Carolina on the whole, and legislators are unwilling to change that position.
When Operation Lost Trust rocked the state nearly 24 years ago with its vote buying scandals, the General Assembly passed an ethics law that was considered potentially one of the toughest in the nation at the time.
However, there was one big loophole. While the law established the Ethics Commission to investigate ethics violation allegations against local and statewide officials, it preserved the right to investigate ethics violation allegations against legislators to within the purview of the House and Senate Ethics Committees.
That’s right, the legislators investigate themselves. And the use of the word “toothless” when referring to these committees is well considered.
This is what Harrell’s lawyers are attempting to preserve.
We have had Gov. Mark Sanford investigated by the Attorney General for possible criminal charges. We have had Lt. Gov. Ken Ard indicted by the State Grand Jury over misuse of campaign funds.
But we can’t have Harrell investigated by the State Grand Jury over possible misuse of campaign funds? We must allow Harrell to be investigated by a committee whose members he appoints?
That argument tells you everything you need to know about the South Carolina political system.
If Harrell wins this legal battle, he is justifiably confident that he will escape any repercussions over his use of campaign funds.
And there is no reason to believe Harrell won’t win. Remember, it is the General Assembly that elects judges in this state, another victory for the legislature over the people.
But, if Harrell does win, it’s time for a new Constitution in the state. A legislative dictatorship is no longer acceptable.