COLUMBIA — The prosecutor who’s considering ethics allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell has several options for the case that’s been handed to him from the attorney general.
Neither Attorney General Alan Wilson nor Solicitor David Pascoe is talking about the case. They won’t even confirm or deny Harrell’s statement more than a week ago that the state grand jury investigation has ended and that Wilson transferred the case to Pascoe, the Democratic chief prosecutor for Calhoun, Dorchester and Orangeburg counties.
It could be a first in the 25-year existence of the state grand jury. Legal experts know of no other scenario when an attorney general transferred a case after a state grand jury probe ended without an indictment.
“I’m not aware of any prior case,” said University South Carolina Law School professor Colin Miller.
If Pascoe has the case, as Harrell says his lawyers were told July 29, experts say the solicitor’s options include taking the allegations to a county grand jury, asking to empanel another state grand jury, or dismissing the case altogether. Harrell, R-Charleston, has repeatedly called the case political and maintains he’s done nothing illegal.
In an Aug. 16 news release, Harrell said the grand jury’s probe ended 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.
Wilson, a Republican, did on his own what Harrell sought in court. In February, Harrell’s attorneys filed a motion seeking Wilson’s removal. The Supreme Court’s July ruling tossed that question back to the lower court to decide, which it did not do.
It’s also not clear why the state grand jury probe ended. Harrell’s statement used the term “expired.” His attorneys aren’t commenting further.
By law, a state grand jury sits for 12 months. If its work hasn’t concluded in that time, the attorney general can seek up to two, six-month extensions. Whether Wilson chose not to ask, or whether he did and a judge turned him down, is publicly unknown. State law also allows the presiding judge to discharge a state grand jury prior to its term ending, either at the attorney general’s request or on his own.
If Pascoe chooses to impanel another state grand jury, the process must start all over. Both State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel and a judge would have to agree to it.
A state grand jury indictment requires at least 12 people on the 18-member panel to find that probable cause exists.
“Generally, it’s pretty easy to secure a grand jury indictment,” said Miller, citing the phrase, popularized by a Tom Wolfe novel, that it’s possible to “indict a ham sandwich.” “That a grand jury convened and nothing came out of it is unusual.”
Wilson spokesman Mark Powell has said he can’t comment because of the state Supreme Court’s order for secrecy in the case. At the June hearing, Chief Justice Jean Toal criticized prosecutors for talking publicly about their inquiry, particularly Wilson, who announced in January he was handing the case to the state grand jury.
Wilson’s current silence is a broad interpretation of a footnote in the high court’s July 9 ruling, which references the secrecy of state grand jury proceedings. “Future arguments regarding jurisdiction, or any other ancillary matter” should be held in private, it reads.
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