COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell said Saturday that the state grand jury's investigation into ethics allegations against him has ended, and Attorney General Alan Wilson is off the case.
Harrell said in a news release that Wilson removed himself and passed responsibility to Democratic Solicitor David Pascoe, the chief prosecutor for Calhoun, Dorchester and Orangeburg counties.
Harrell, R-Charleston, said the grand jury's probe expired June 30, days after a hearing on Wilson's jurisdiction. The state Supreme Court ruled July 9 that Wilson had the authority to initiate an investigation into allegations that Harrell abused his power for personal benefit. That decision overturned a lower court's order that Wilson halt his investigation, saying a legislative ethics panel must first weigh in on an ethics complaint.
It's unclear when Wilson voluntarily stepped down.
The attorney general's office didn't notify Harrell's attorney until July 29, Harrell said.
Wilson, a Republican, did on his own what Harrell sought in court. In February, Harrell's attorneys filed a motion seeking Wilson's removal, citing a conflict. The Supreme Court's July ruling tossed that question back to the lower court to decide. The justices noted then that Judge Casey Manning had raised questions about Wilson's jurisdiction on his own.
"I have said from the beginning that I violated no law and have only sought an independent prosecutor free of political motives and influence. I hope these events accomplish that," Harrell said in the release. "It is important for everyone to understand that we did not know about these events until about a month after they occurred."
Harrell's office sent the release after he informed members of the House Republican Caucus during their annual conference, held this year in Myrtle Beach.
"I was very surprised and happy for him," said House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville.
Wilson spokesman Mark Powell said Saturday that he could not comment because the Supreme Court's decision called for secrecy in future court arguments on the case. At the June hearing, Chief Justice Jean Toal criticized prosecutors for talking publicly about their inquiry, particularly Wilson, who announced in January that he was handing the case to the state grand jury. By law, state grand jury proceedings are conducted in secret.
John Crangle of Common Cause said Wilson's move doesn't mean Harrell is cleared.
"A solicitor stepping into Wilson's shoes has the same power Wilson has. He can convene a county grand jury," said Crangle, who helped urge Wilson to take the complaint against Harrell.
Wilson sent the case to the state grand jury a month after receiving a report from the State Law Enforcement Division.
Wilson asked SLED to investigate 10 months earlier, after South Carolina Policy Council President Ashley Landess alleged Harrell boosted his finances by using influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business and improperly spent campaign donations. The libertarian think tank also took issue with Harrell appointing his brother to a committee that screens judicial candidates and picks the top three for each seat, from which the Legislature then chooses.
Harrell, speaker since 2005, has maintained he's done nothing wrong. He has repeatedly called for SLED's report to be released to the public.
Wilson initially declined to take Landess' complaint directly. But, in his letter to state police, he noted Landess had brought to his attention possible conflicts of interest with any review by the House Ethics Committee — an argument both she and Crangle made for months as they considered filing a complaint.