The ongoing story of Attorney General Alan Wilson’s grand jury investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell has sparked editorials, news articles, blog posts, and innumerable outraged tweets, Facebook posts, and web comments. Everyone’s got an opinion. Rarely does a story about state government that doesn’t involve the governor attract so much attention.
Now, as I’ve just learned, the Harrell story has prompted a Charleston attorney to ask the nation’s top prosecutor – Attorney General Eric Holder – for a federal investigation of the House Speaker. Attorney Dusty Rhoades, who is not involved with the Harrell case, says he sent the request earlier this month.
“The Federal investigation in the 80s, Operation Lost Trust, regarding S.C. legislators was successful,” Rhoades said in his May 15 letter. “It appears to me, clearly, that the current problems investigating allegations of corruption are being decided by people with obvious conflicts of interest.”
Rhoades, who focuses on lawyer malpractice, workers’ compensation, and general injury cases in his law practice, has made a reputation for himself over the years as a lone legal crusader.
“Mention my name around town,” he tells us, “you’ll get a response. Sometimes it’ll involve curse words.”
In 2007, for example, he made headlines when he asked for an investigation by the state grand jury and SLED into an executive order issued by then-Gov. Mark Sanford about how the state Workers’ Compensation Commission, a quasi-judicial body, should calculate awards, contending the order amounted to intimidation of court officials. Sanford later clarified his order.
I ask him why he got interested in the Harrell case.
“Just because principle matters. It really does. It’s why I became a lawyer.”
“Yeah. Sometimes I see something that’s just stupid, and nobody’s doing anything about it. When that happens, I can’t just do nothing.”
Rhoades, who was raised in New Haven but who attended Furman and has been in South Carolina for 40 years, says he has nothing against Harrell and certainly has no plans for running for office. “I just don’t see anything being done about this,” he says.
Rhoades in his letter doesn’t identify whom he believed had conflicts of interest in the Harrell case, though he says the group includes the House Ethics Committee and any judges dealing with the Harrell case “who are going to be elected again and are dependent upon them (the General Assembly) for re-election.”
“The S.C. Legislature elects judges who decide these issues,” Roades’ letter says.
We ask him what he means by that. “None of the judges are good options,” he says. “They’re all going to say, ‘I owe this guy, or I will owe this guy.’”
South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges. Harrell appointed his brother, John Harrell, a Charleston attorney, to the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which nominates judicial candidates for election. The Policy Council alleges in its complaint that the appointment violated state law.
As for the S.C. House Ethics Committee investigating Harrell, Rhoades said some members have conflicts of interest because they accepted donations from a political action committee with ties to Harrell, as The Nerve reported in January 2013.
Contacted Friday by a reporter from The Nerve, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles declined to comment on whether he was aware of Rhoades’ letter or whether there was any federal investigation of Harrell, saying only, “Consistent with the policies of the United States Department of Justice, I cannot either confirm or deny the existence or non-existence of an investigation.”
Charleston attorney Bart Daniel, one of Harrell’s lawyers and who, ironically, led the federal prosecution of more than two dozen S.C. lawmakers, lobbyists and others charged in the FBI bribery sting known as Operation Lost Trust, said when contacted Saturday that he had not seen Rhoades’ letter and had no further comment.
I ask Rhoades: Do you enjoy getting into controversies like this?
“My wife wishes I wouldn’t do it. They’re not income producing, these things. I can promise you that.”