State prosecutors vowed to appeal the ruling, which Harrell said was a victory in a “politically driven” pursuit.
The state grand jury had been considering whether Harrell, a powerful Charleston Republican, should be indicted on allegations that he used his influence for personal benefit, including obtaining a permit for his pharmaceutical business and appointing his brother to a judicial candidate screening committee.
Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council, a libertarian-leaning think tank, brought the allegations to Attorney General Alan Wilson. The Republican forwarded the matter to the State Law Enforcement Division and had been in the process of presenting its secret findings to the grand jury.
Two public hearings were held, with Harrell’s attorneys first arguing that Wilson had tried to intimidate their client into supporting certain legislation, which Wilson denied. Later, the speaker’s lawyers said the whole matter should be taken out of the court system and dealt with by the House Ethics Committee.
Circuit Judge Casey Manning’s decision to send the Harrell case to the Legislature is similar to one he previously made regarding ethics allegations against Gov. Nikki Haley, a former House member.
In Monday’s ruling, Manning said state law requires the ethics panel to be the first to consider such a case and that it was improper to take the issue to the grand jury right away.
“Until the South Carolina House of Representatives Ethics Committee has either referred the matter to Attorney General Wilson or has otherwise acted on the complaint, exclusive jurisdiction resides solely within the South Carolina House of Representatives Ethics Committee,” Manning wrote, saying the matter was “solely within the purview” of that panel.
Wilson has said the Harrell matter is criminal and therefore must be dealt with in court.
In an e-mailed statement, Wilson said he planned to appeal.
“We believe today’s order of Judge Manning is without any foundation or support in the law,” Wilson said.
In Haley’s case, Republican activist John Rainey filed suit against her in 2011, accusing her of improper lobbying while working as a hospital fundraiser and for a highway engineering firm while representing Lexington in the House.
Manning ruled that the matter should be dealt with by the House ethics panel. Rainey lodged a parallel complaint with the panel, which ultimately cleared Haley. Rainey lost his appeal in court.
Wilson said the Rainey case was different because that matter was entirely civil and initiated by a private citizen, while the Harrell rose to a criminal level.
In a statement, Harrell repeated his request to release the SLED report and said the case “reeks of politics.”
“The constitution and state statutes are clear on these issues,” Harrell said. “Rather than discussing the merits of the case, the attorney general continues to play politics.
Landess said such a ruling hinders citizens’ abilities to bring complaints against their elected representatives.
“This ruling is not about the attorney general’s authority so much as it is about a citizen’s right to an advocate in the criminal justice system,” Landess said. “The judge ruled that, when it comes to politicians, citizens do not have an advocate in the criminal justice system. ... That is alarming.”