Metts and Harrell Cases Illustrate Different Views of State Ethics Act

Hands on BarsIn a stunning announcement Tuesday, Bill Nettles, the U.S. attorney for South Carolina, revealed that longtime Lexington County Sheriff James Metts was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges he accepted bribes to help several inmates detained at the county jail under an immigration-enforcement program.

Four of the 10 federal counts against Metts allege that he used a cell phone – classified under federal law as a “facility in interstate commerce” – to violate state bribery laws, one of which falls under the state Ethics Act.

Yet in court papers filed Monday, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, responding to an appeal by state Attorney General Alan Wilson in Harrell’s state grand jury case, said Wilson’s office has no jurisdiction in his case, contending that violations under the Ethics Act are civil, not criminal, in nature, citing a 1994 S.C. Supreme Court ruling.

If convicted of all 10 counts, Metts, a Republican who has been sheriff since 1972 but was suspended Tuesday from office by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley, faces a maximum federal prison sentence ranging from 5 years to 20 years per count, and a maximum $250,000 fine per charge, according to information from Nettles’ office.

Metts, 68, is charged with one count of conspiracy to violate federal law and interfere with a “government function,” four counts of use of an “interstate facility to facilitate bribery,” four counts of use of interstate wire to “defraud the citizens of Lexington County of their right to honest services,” and one count of conspiracy to “harbor illegal aliens.”

He is accused of accepting cash bribes – the amounts of which are not specified in the 27-page indictment – from former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier, 46, who worked for Metts as a “business liaison,” and local restaurateur Greg Leon, 47, in exchange for helping four suspected illegal immigrants who worked for Leon and were detained at the Lexington County jail after being arrested by West Columbia police in separate incidents in 2011. At least two of the inmates were released because of Metts’ involvement, according to the indictment.

Metts, through his attorney, has denied the charges, according to media reports.

The indictment alleges Metts “allowed friends to buy favors when he accepted cash to interfere in the identification and processing of certain illegal aliens” at the jail. In 2010, Metts, who had jurisdiction over the jail as sheriff, and the sheriff’s department entered into an agreement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to participate in an immigration-enforcement program, the purpose of which is to “enhance the safety and security of communities by permitting the identification and processing of arrested illegal aliens so that those who pose a threat to public safety or a danger to the community can be removed,” the indictment states.

Frazier and Leon, both of Lexington, were charged by the state grand jury with bribing Metts, Nettles said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

Under the state Ethics Act (Section 8-13-705 of the S.C. Code of Laws), conviction of bribery is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Under another state law cited in Metts’ indictment, (Section 16-9-220), a bribery conviction carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence, or a maximum two-year jail sentence and a $5,000 fine.

Violations under the Ethics Act generally are classified as misdemeanors, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $5,000 fine. Critics contend that the penalties should be toughened for more serious violations under the act.

“Public corruption at any level will not be tolerated,” Nettles said in his statement Tuesday. “These indictments are a product of a new team at the United States Attorney’s Office whose goal is to use an unprecedented level of cooperation with state and federal agencies in routing out public corruption and returning public trust to the people.”

Nettles was joined in making the announcement by Wilson, State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel and various federal law enforcement officials.

Harrell, the House Speaker since 2005 and who was first elected to the House in 1992, has not been charged with any crimes in his state grand jury case; and he has repeatedly denied doing anything wrong.

The Charleston Republican wants the state Supreme Court, which has set a Tuesday hearing in his case, to uphold a May 12 ruling by Richland County Circuit Judge Casey Manning, who ordered that the grand jury investigation be halted despite, according to court papers filed by Wilson, impaneling the jury in January.

In his ruling, Manning said Wilson presented no evidence that any of the allegations against Harrell were criminal in nature and therefore didn’t have jurisdiction over the case.

Instead, the House Ethics Committee, which doesn’t have the authority to investigate criminal allegations against House members, has jurisdiction over Harrell’s case, Manning ruled. Wilson appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the grand jury investigation could continue pending the appeal.

In a footnote in his 30-page response to the appeal, which was filed on Monday, Harrell said even though the language of the Ethics Act generally labels violations under the act as misdemeanors, it “does not change this result” and “is therefore not controlling” because of a 1994 ruling by the state Supreme Court. He contends the court in that case, known as State v. Thrift, held that “violations of the Ethics Act are civil rather than criminal.”

“In usurping the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee, the Attorney General ignored established precedent and violated state law,” Harrell’s response said. “The Attorney General is not authorized to investigate these civil matters, at least until the House Ethics Committee has acted and the administrative remedies have been exhausted. Moreover, the Grand Jury has no jurisdiction to investigate civil matters and should not be permitted to proceed with a matter that is clearly outside of its jurisdiction.”

In his appeal filed earlier, Wilson said the Thrift case and a 2003 Supreme Court ruling established the principle that the state attorney general can launch a criminal investigation without a referral from a government entity that doesn’t have that authority.

He also said in court papers there is no evidence in examining the history of the state grand jury, launched in 1989, and state Ethics Act, which took effect in 1992 after the Operation Lost Trust bribery scandal broke, that the attorney general needed the Legislature’s “permission” before pursuing a criminal investigation or prosecution of Ethics Act violations.

Wilson pointed out that the state grand jury’s authority to investigate public corruption, defined under state law as “any unlawful activity under color of or in connection with any public office or employment,” includes criminal violations of the Ethics Act as well as other criminal offenses outside the act.

The South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – in February 2013 filed a complaint against Harrell, asking Wilson to investigate what Policy Council President Ashley Landess described in a letter accompanying the complaint as a possible “pattern of public corruption that would be out of the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee to investigate.”

Although Harrell in his court filing Monday maintained that Ethics Act violations have been “unambiguously declared by the (Supreme) Court to be civil rather than criminal in nature,” he said Landess characterized the allegations cited in the Policy Council’s complaint “as a criminal matter.”

That complaint was turned over to SLED in February 2013, which after a 10-month investigation forwarded its report to Wilson, who referred it to the state grand jury in January for further investigation.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.