South Carolina's attorney general has brought a criminal case before a grand jury against the state Speaker of the House. But the question before a judge right now is whether the attorney general needs to get permission from state lawmakers to prosecute one of their own.
Former South Carolina attorney general Charlie Condon never imagined that his office would need the OK from lawmakers to prosecute alleged criminal behavior.
"It's a time-tested principle – we had thought in South Carolina – that the attorney general is the chief prosecutor with the ability to investigate all crimes, even potential crimes by members of the General Assembly," Condon said.
But now a state judge is deciding whether that's actually the case. Here's the backstory:
Current Attorney General Alan Wilson has been investigating Speaker of the House and fellow Republican Bobby Harrell for allegations of public corruption. One of the allegations is that Harrell used his elected position to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business.
The attorney general and South Carolina law enforcement view this as a criminal case and brought it to a grand jury.
"These are things that statewide grand jury specifically has jurisdiction over," Condon said.
But Speaker Harrell's attorneys disagree. They say the allegations should go through the House Ethics Committee first. That's a committee the House elects, and it's pretty limited in what it can do if a lawmaker breaks the rules.
Representative Kenny Bingham is its chairman.
"All we have is monetary fines that we would fine against the campaign," he said. "The maximum individual fine for any particular individual violation is $2,000."
Bingham said any criminal allegations are passed on to the attorney general's office.
That's not what happened here – Attorney General Wilson moved first. In a written statement, a spokesman for Speaker Harrell said the attorney general is not following the proper process.
Former Attorney General Charlie Condon couldn't disagree more.
"Because that would mean that the elected members of our general assembly potentially are not going to be thoroughly investigated and thoroughly held accountable for some very serious criminal conduct, and they are held to lower standards than the average citizen," he said. "I just think that's very disturbing."
Condon and two other former attorneys general released a statement supporting Wilson's authority to prosecute this case. They're not saying anything about Speaker Harrell's guilt or innocence – just that the attorney general should be able to do his job.
A state judge's ruling is expected within a few weeks. Whatever the result, an appeal to the state supreme court is likely.