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Confusion causes SC legislators to back out of special prosecutor bill amid AG investigation

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina House members removed their names Thursday from legislation that would allow the General Assembly to decide whether an independent prosecutor should investigate ethics allegations against a constitutional officer or other officers under the governor's control.

Eighty-five legislators of both parties initially signed on to the proposals introduced Wednesday. That quickly drew fire against the backdrop of Attorney General Alan Wilson investigating House Speaker Bobby Harrell for possible ethics violations. Harrell, R-Charleston, maintains he's done nothing wrong.

Harrell's critics argued the bills are about his case. John Crangle of Common Cause said he believes the measures are meant to sabotage potential prosecution.

Legislators of both parties disagreed, saying the measures couldn't apply to Harrell. But they also disagreed on why. More than two dozen legislators withdrew their support Thursday.

One bill would give the Legislature authority to decide on a special prosecutor. The other would first ask voters on general election ballots whether the state constitution should no longer say the attorney general is always the state's top prosecutor.

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, dislikes the referendum. But he said it's good public policy to have a process for appointing an independent prosecutor in public corruption cases where there is a conflict of interest. Smith, an attorney for Wilson's re-election campaign, said the special-prosecutor bill can't be aimed at the Wilson-Harrell saga because it has no chance of becoming law in time.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, noted it's also not retroactive. He said he saw the bill as a way for the Legislature to force an investigation if, for example, the governor refused to look into a Cabinet member.

Smith initially said Thursday he'd offer changes to better define who it applied to and when, but later decided to remove his name and start over. His bill won't be accompanied by a constitutional referendum, he said.

"It's in-artfully drawn," he said. "It's easier to just write a new bill."

The bill's purpose, as he saw it, he said, "is getting lost in the circumstances of the timing. I don't want the issue to be lost in that whole back-and-forth."

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said the bill's not meant to apply to a legislator's case anyway, so it couldn't affect Harrell. The reference to constitutional officers refers to statewide officers, and, as for other officers, the governor has no authority to remove legislators, he said.

He said the measures are meant to answer the question of who investigates the attorney general if an ethics case arises. It arose from a report in The Post and Courier that quoted the state Ethics Commission's attorney saying she didn't know who would pursue a case against the state's top prosecutor, he said.

"It was to fill a gap," said Bannister, R-Greenville. "It was a reaction to there is no one."

Crangle contends legislators are constitutional officers, so the bill as written would allow the General Assembly to decide if a lawmaker's case needs a special prosecutor. Smith agrees on that point.

Harrell says it has nothing to do with him. He notes he's not even a co-sponsor of this legislation.

"I did not introduce this bill, draft this bill or ask that it be introduced," he said. "Just like members of the Judiciary, members of the General Assembly are not constitutional officers. There is no ambiguity to the fact that this bill in no way applies to the Legislature, implying otherwise is simply inaccurate political spin."

Harrell is pursuing a different path for removing Wilson from the case. His attorneys asked a judge to do so last month. The judge has not ruled.

Wilson announced in January that he sent the case to the State Grand Jury. It stems from allegations he used his office to boost his finances by using influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business and improperly appointed his brother to a judicial candidate screening committee.

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