It was a wild week in South Carolina politics last week, with what seems like a constitutional showdown over the separation of powers in state government. For some months now, there has been a strong Grand Jury investigation into SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell led by SC Attorney General Alan Wilson. This investigation has centered on campaign financial practices and allegations of numerous counts of criminal ethics violations on the part of the Speaker. Many observers around the state have couched this battle as a battle not over ethics in state government, but as a battle between two camps inside the SCGOP: Harrell’s and Wilson’s. I see this not as a battle between personalities inside the party, but as yet another illustration of the need for real reform to South Carolina state government.
I have long said that this state doesn’t have adequate separations of power; the legislature is so predominate in Palmetto State politics that neither the Governor’s office nor the judiciary really has much sway over the direction of this state. This doesn’t serve the folks of South Carolina well, and it provides the right soil conditions for seedy behavior and ethical lapses in the legislature. Whether or not Speaker Harrell is guilty or innocent of the ethics allegations against him is not for me to decide; I believe matters of guilt and innocence best reside in the hands of a jury, not in the court of public opinion. That being said, the bigger debate in this unfolding ethics drama is the notion of accountability in state government.
Once Attorney General Wilson began his Grand Jury investigation into Speaker Harrell, the Speaker began trying to have the investigation into his actions referred back to an SC House Ethics Committee. Instead of a third-party, objective investigation into these allegations of public corruption, the Speaker preferred to assert the SC House’s position that all investigations into the alleged misconduct of its members be referred to a House panel. To me, having ethics charges against House members, particularly House leadership, investigated by a House committee is too much like the fox guarding the gate to the henhouse. It is unreasonable to expect a serious investigation of a House member by other House members; there’s always the incentive for members to protect one another, expecting future reciprocal treatment in a similar investigation. Thus, having the House “police” itself is simply a precursor to increased public corruption.
This tendency toward self-policing on the part of the General Assembly was further reinforced this week when SC Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning ordered that the Attorney General’s investigation be referred back to the SC House Ethics Committee instead of continuing with the SC Grand Jury. This provides a major win for Speaker Harrell’s defense, but a serious setback to transparency in state government. Regardless of Speaker Harrell’s innocence or guilt, this ruling by Judge Manning reinforces legislative dominance in South Carolina, and further insulates lawmakers from the long arm of the law. To me, having legislators effectively immune to Grand Jury investigations and / or prosecution sets-up a two-tiered legal system in our state: a set of rules for lawmakers, and another set of rules for everyone else.
In my view, no citizen of South Carolina, lawmaker or otherwise, should be treated differently before the law. Judge Manning’s ruling that the SC Grand Jury and the SC Attorney General cannot investigate lawmakers unless a committee of lawmakers says that they can is a recipe for disaster. As such, I’d humbly suggest that any meaningful ethics reform legislation, as has been debated in Columbia for the past two years, should include a provision that all public officials – including members of the General Assembly – are subject to investigation by the SC Grand Jury and the SC Attorney General’s office, given just cause. Such a reform would ensure that there aren’t two sets of rules based on whether or not someone is a member of the legislature or a private citizen.
It is high time that there are serious separations of power in state government, and ending the practice of self-policing by the two houses of our General Assembly would go a long way toward transparency and openness in Columbia. South Carolinians deserve the statehouse to be subject to the same laws as the rest of the citizenry of this state.