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Bobby Harrell with John McCain in 2008 / Alan Hawes, AP

COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina Republicans are having quite the family feud.

GOP House Speaker Bobby Harrell - perhaps the most powerful lawmaker in the state - is under investigation by a state grand jury, the result of a referral made by Attorney General (and fellow Republican) Alan Wilson.

Harrell has accused Wilson of conducting a vendetta; his lawyers have gone to court to try and get the attorney general kicked off the case.

Also involved: The South Carolina Policy Council, a research organization that says it is devoted to limited government and the free market. The council filed a complaint against Harrell with the attorney general, and now fears retaliation from the House speaker and his powerful allies, some of whom in turn accuse the policy council of political attacks on Harrell.

South Carolina politics - not for the faint of heart.

The Harrell case provides more evidence that party dominance - and South Carolina is among the reddest of red states - does not promote political comity. It may do just the opposite.

"It's one-party politics," said Republican consultant David Woodard, who is also a political science professor at Clemson University. "And one-party politics revolves around personality."

For Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council, it's about raw power in a state where the gloves tend to come off early in political battles.

South Carolina law gives the Legislature immense power over the governor (through appointments to boards and commissions) and the judiciary (through the selection of judges). One result is what Landess called "the highest concentration of power and secrecy in the country."

As it stands now, Harrell, Wilson and Landess - all of whom work within blocks of each other in the shadow of the South Carolina State House - are waiting for a judge's decision on jurisdiction of the case.

Attorneys for Harrell have argued Wilson is not impartial and should be removed, a claim disputed by the attorney general.

Harrell's critics fear the judge might take the case away from the grand jury and refer it back to the House Ethics Committee, where they say it would be buried in deference to the speaker's power.

This particular drama began Sept. 24, 2012, when the Charleston Post and Courier ran a story saying that Harrell reimbursed himself $325,000 from his campaign war chest without documentation, mostly for use of his private plane.

Harrell, a pilot, said he made those flights while conducting state business, and that he used campaign funds rather than state funds.

The South Carolina Policy Council filed its complaint in February 2013, alleging a variety of abuses of office.

Wilson, who had authorized a probe by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), issued a two-sentence news release Jan. 13 announcing that the matter "is being referred to the State Grand Jury."

Harrell, proclaiming his innocence, noted to reporters in January that the grand jury announcement came the day before the opening of the legislative session. He claimed that the timing was designed "to inflict political damage" on him.

"At every stage of this investigation it was reiterated to us that investigators have found no areas of concern," Harrell said in a January statement. "Given every indication we have received from SLED and the Attorney General, I am disappointed and shocked by this sudden change of course."

Since then, some House Republicans have backed legislative measures that would remove Wilson from the case by creating a special prosecutor's office to investigate public officials. It's unclear whether that kind of legislation is going anywhere.

Like many family battles, this one has its fair share of rumor, innuendo and conspiracy theories. It also touches, one way or another, on some of the most powerful people in the state, a small group with long-standing ties.

An example: Wilson is the son of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who became infamous among Democrats - and celebrated among many Republicans - for yelling "you lie" at President Obama during his State of the Union Address in 2009.

Attorney General Wilson has not commented publicly on the Harrell case. But Richard Quinn, a consultant who worked on Wilson's campaign, said Harrell is "trying to do everything he can to discredit the attorney general."

Landess said she has been the target of anonymous attacks, and that people are doing Harrell's bidding because of his power within the Legislature. Landess said that Harrell has "the most unchecked power of any American politician."

An ally of Harrell, House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, says the speaker has a "sterling" reputation and that ideological differences are part of the dispute. The South Carolina Policy Council is "to a large degree a libertarian group," while Harrell is more of a traditional Republican, Bannister said.

"This feud has been going on for years," Bannister said.

No one knows how the case will turn out, save for one thing: Democrats likely don't have the political numbers in South Carolina to take advantage of Republican in-fighting.

"The Republicans," Woodard said, "are still going to be in power after all this is over."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: South Carolina Republicans battle over ethics case

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