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How widespread is public corruption in S.C.?

Posted: May 23, 2014 9:50 a.m.
Updated: May 26, 2014 5:00 a.m.

After six years of peeling back layers of our corrupt state government, nothing should surprise us. And yet Judge Manning’s ruling was still a shock -- it didn’t seem possible for a judge to shut down a grand jury investigation into alleged corruption by the Speaker of the House and argue that Harrell’s staff and colleagues on the House Ethics Committee must first decide if he has committed a crime.

But it happened.

Judge Manning’s ruling all but guarantees lawmakers won’t be held accountable for corruption. The Ethics Act was not merely a process statement on how to file a report. It was passed to stop bribery, and addresses many other crimes arising from holding public office. Embezzling campaign funds, intimidation, using an office for financial gain: if a crime involves campaigns or public office, it’s likely defined under the Ethics Act. But if Manning’s ruling stands, politicians cannot be prosecuted for any of those crimes unless their colleagues say so.

The ruling is devastating to the rights and liberty of citizens. Even our flawed constitution did not set up the contorted decision. Rather, it appears that the judge ignored the constitution -- which gives the Attorney General full authority to pursue any criminal matter -- and relied at least in part on the wording in the complaint I gave to Attorney General Alan Wilson: a document that had been drafted for possible filing in the House Ethics Committee, and that was presented with many other documents and much more verbal information.

Talk about “blame the victim!” Since the document listed ethics violations and had a heading referring to it as an ethics matter, Judge Manning concluded that it belonged in the House Ethics Committee. In fact, one reporter asked me if I worried over the possibility that if I’d used different language the judge might not have given legislators almost total immunity for corruption.

Sadly, the question is a fair one. I certainly take full responsibility for the document that has been characterized -- even by me -- as the “complaint” against Speaker Bobby Harrell. S.C. Policy Council (SCPC) staff did much of the solid research behind it and we had the input and oversight of excellent attorneys, but ultimately I put the final version together and left it with the attorney general and his team.

We never wanted to draft a formal complaint at all, much less explore filing with the House Ethics Committee. But many citizen leaders believed as we did that an emerging pattern of behavior by the Speaker could constitute public corruption, and that something had to be done. Corruption is a serious criminal matter that the committee is neither authorized nor qualified to deal with. Furthermore, we discovered that the committee process (particularly with regard to the Speaker) was so fraught with inherent, unresolvable conflicts that it almost certainly would have violated constitutional right to due process.

We took our concerns first to the Attorney General precisely because he is the one authorized to pursue corruption allegations. While he was initially hesitant to take on the matter, he certainly had the authority to do so. That he wanted us to first explore filing with the committee was understandable, but we didn’t believe we should have had to. But it was either that or let the matter fester longer -- someone had to do something and the SCPC board and staff concluded we had to be that “someone.” That’s why we drafted a complaint in accordance with ethics committee procedures (hence some of the wording).

It’s hard to understand how the judge could have concluded that we did not allege public corruption when we so clearly did, or that the Attorney General didn’t have the authority to pursue it when he so clearly does. Ultimately, the document itself was entirely irrelevant to the investigation process and certainly to the grand jury process. I could have taken a coloring book to that meeting and it would have had the same legal implication: none.

What mattered was the allegation of public corruption. The Attorney General heard from many citizen leaders for months, and together we raised concerns. Ultimately, the SCPC did “pull the trigger” but through our actions, not through an official complaint because there was none. Rather, it was the allegation of public corruption and all the supporting information we provided -- along with information the AG had from others -- that ultimately led him to take up the matter, which he and his team did vigorously and without flinching.

The Attorney General is the people’s advocate -- that’s why he’s authorized to pursue any crime. Citizens shouldn’t have to be legal experts to share information about a possible crime by a powerful politician, nor should they be forced to go to a legislative committee. Corruption is a serious crime against all citizens. It endangers our freedom -- that’s why it’s a felony, and why a diverse coalition of citizens has been relentless in demanding that the Speaker be held accountable. Corruption is dangerous, and yet Judge Manning not only trivialized it, but gave lawmakers virtual immunity from answering for it. We can only trust that the state Supreme Court restores the rule of law and public trust.

(Ed. note: the S.C. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that, while awaiting the results of an appeal of Manning’s decision, Wilson and the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division can continue investigating the allegations against Harrell.)

(Ashley Landess is president of the S.C. Policy Council, which submitted apparent evidence of potentially criminal wrongdoing to the Attorney General in February of 2013. This op-ed, originally published May 15, was made available by the S.C. News Exchange to the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)

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