The Politician Protection Act?

ARE HOUSE MEMBERS USING THE LAW TO PROTECT SOMEONE? OR TO WARN SOMEONE? PERHAPS THEY SHOULD EXPLAIN.

Over the last year, we’ve noticed a growing number of bills introduced for the sole purpose – apparently – of protecting certain members of the legislature from prosecution for alleged ethics violations.

A prime example of that trend, it would seem, is H.5072. This bill would allow the House and Senate to authorize a special prosecutor to investigate “alleged” violations of ethics laws by constitutional officers – for example, the Attorney General. (The prosecutorial appointee would also be empowered to investigate “other officers,” a term referring to the heads of several executive departments and members of other boards and commissions – it does not, as far as we can tell, include legislators.) If authorized, the special prosecutor would be appointed jointly by the Senate President Pro Tem and the House Speaker. The prosecutor would also be entitled to the full resources and use of the state grand jury.

This proposal would violate article 24, section 5 of the South Carolina constitution. That section says, in part, “The Attorney General shall be the chief prosecuting officer of the State with authority to supervise the prosecution of all criminal cases in courts of record.” In order to get around the problem, lawmakers have introduced a joint resolution to amend the state constitution by removing the above-quoted sentence.

In effect, the bill would strip the Attorney General of his position as the state’s chief prosecutor. His job description would be left up the legislature. The fact that such a major change was filed “without reference” – meaning it can bypass the ordinary committee process – raises serious concerns about its purpose.

At a time when the House Speaker is under investigation for public corruption by the Attorney General, a bill to take the Attorney General off public corruption cases and instead use a “special prosecutor” appointed by the Senate President Pro Tem and the House Speaker strongly suggests an attempt by House lawmakers to shield the Speaker from prosecution. If this is true, it is a reprehensible use of legislators’ power to make laws; they are using the law to put themselves above it. Or perhaps the bill is intended more as a warning to the Attorney General not to press forward in prosecuting public corruption cases. Whatever the case, the bill’s 85 co-sponsors should explain their intent.

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