Originally created 11/25/03

McMaster wants greater power to prosecute pollution crimes



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Attorney General Henry McMaster wants state legislators to give the state grand jury authority to investigate crimes against the environment and his office greater power to prosecute.

State officials limited authority to investigate using standard police procedures, such as eyewitness testimony. But those techniques are not the most effective when investigating white-collar crimes, McMaster said.

"We need a grand jury that operates like the federal grand jury," he said. "Extending authority to the state grand jury would allow it to subpoena witnesses or records."

The U.S. Attorney's office typically investigates environmental crimes in South Carolina, relying on federal grand juries with much broader authority than the state grand jury.

Federal prosecutors have handled high-profile cases in South Carolina, but their priorities could change, shifting focus from environmental crimes, McMaster said. The state could help out if its grand jury had broader authority, he said.

Former Attorney General Charlie Condon had to turn over a case three years ago involving Tin Products of Lexington to federal authorities because of the state's limited ability to prosecute. Three company officials eventually pleaded guilty in the federal case for their roles in a chemical spill that killed hundreds of fish and contaminated drinking water.

A bill that would add enforcement of environmental laws to the state grand jury's duties has been introduced by state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia.

The state grand jury has investigative power in corruption cases, drug crimes, election law violations, securities cases and a handful of other crimes. Federal grand juries have authority over an array of crimes.

Knotts said businesses that are following the law should not fear greater state authority.

Environmental lawyer and Sierra Club member Bob Guild said he welcomes stronger prosecution of pollution crimes.

Business leaders say extending state jurisdiction is not necessary.

"Between DHEC and the federal authorities, there are adequate tools to be able to deal with companies that have not adhered to environmental rules and regulations," said Hunter Howard, president of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.