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SC Attorney General To Appeal Ruling That He Can't Prosecute Lawmaker Yet

South Carolina's attorney general plans to appeal a ruling that says he needs to go through lawmakers if he wants to prosecute a lawmaker. The case revolves around allegations that state House Speaker Bobby Harrell used his office for personal gain.

This case is about a fundamental question involving the separation of powers: does South Carolina's attorney general need permission from state lawmakers to prosecute one of their own?

Attorney General Alan Wilson doesn't think so. He and South Carolina law enforcement investigated House Speaker Bobby Harrell for allegations of public corruption, including that Harrell used his influence to get his pharmaceutical business a permit. Wilson brought the case before a grand jury.

Harrell argued the case must go through the House Ethics Committee first.  

"That's the way it's supposed to work," he said. "That's the way it has always worked until Alan Wilson decided for purely political reasons that he thought he had a good one he could reach down and grab, and he ignored the law in that process."

Harrell and Wilson are both Republicans, but Harrell said Wilson is trying to make a name for himself.

State judge Casey Manning ruled this week that Wilson did overstep his authority. He cited an earlier case in which a civil complaint against now-Governor Nikki Haley went to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

In that case, the court ruled that the legislative ethics committees have "exclusive authority" over alleged ethics violations.

Speaker Harrell said Attorney General Wilson didn't explain why this case should be different.

"The judge asked Alan Wilson repeatedly, tell me what you got!," he said. "Tell me why we need to proceed. And Alan didn't give him anything. And the reason is, because there is nothing."

The judge's order says the attorney general failed to present any allegations that were criminal in nature, as opposed to civil charges.

Former South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon says the judge is wrong. 

"I was at that hearing," he said, "and the attorney general was very clear about this case being criminal in nature."

Condon said Wilson did not detail the exact allegations against Harrell because that would've violated secrecy provisions in state grand jury law. But he said Wilson made it clear the public corruption case met the requirements for a grand jury - and that the head of South Carolina law enforcement agreed.

"If this ruling is allowed to stand, you set up this two-tiered system in which there are one set of rules for the average citizen, and then there are these special rules for the members of the General Assembly, where in order for them to be held accountable, you have to get permission to investigate and or prosecute," Condon said.

For his part, Attorney General Wilson said he will vigorously pursue an appeal.