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READING BETWEEN THE LINES … AS DIRECTED

This week’s long-awaited indictment of Lexington County (S.C.) Sheriff James Metts and several other figures connected to his “Lexington Ring” cabal was eminently newsworthy.  Most people in South Carolina figured this scandal – like most every scandal in the notoriously corrupt Palmetto State – would be swept under the rug.

The fact it wasn’t is big news … and good news.

But is there another, even bigger story hiding within the joint state-federal “bust” of this glorified local mafia?

Yes … if state and federal prosecutors who spoke with FITS on condition of anonymity are to be believed (and we have no reason not to believe them).

Mere hours after the indictments were issued, we received a phone call from a source familiar with the investigation.  This source asked us to closely examine the language of the press statements issued simultaneously this week by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia, S.C. and the office of S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson. Specifically, we were told to look at the similarities in the direct quotes attributed to the lead prosecutors in those statements.

The source then asked us to follow up with the federal and state prosecutors in both offices to get their take on those similarities.

First let’s look at the statements …

“Public corruption at any level will not be tolerated,” U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said in his remarks.  “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.”

Routing?

We’ll assume he meant to say “rooting.”

Anyway, now let’s look at the statement issued at the state level.

“These indictments are the product of close cooperation among the Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, SLED, the FBI and other agencies,” Wilson said. “This ongoing federal and state partnership demonstrates our commitment to prosecuting public corruption wherever it is found.”

Hmmmm … okay.

For those of you educated in government-run South Carolina schools (and thus unhip to “main idea thinking”), both statements reference close cooperation (or “unprecedented” cooperation, according to the feds) as well as a desire to “rout out” corruption at any level, or according to Wilson “wherever it is found.”

At least those were the two similarities called to our attention …

What do these similarities mean, though?

“It’s called sending a message,” one source close to the investigation told us.

Okay … but to whom?

According to state and federal prosecutors who spoke with us on background (not for attribution), the language of the statements was intended for two individuals: S.C. Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell (who is currently facing a statewide grand jury investigation run by Wilson) and S.C. chief justice Jean Toal (whose court will decide next week whether Wilson’s investigation into Harrell can proceed).

Harrell knows the message was for him, too.

In fact we’re told he abruptly bolted the floor of the S.C. House shortly after the statements were issued – having been tipped off that he needed to read the language for himself.

Sources close to the Speaker tell FITS he turned pale upon reading the language …

The possibility of federal and state coordination in the Harrell investigation would obviously be a seismic development in this ongoing probe – and would seem to provide weight to what Wilson told us last month in the wake of a questionable state circuit court decision to shut down his probe.

“This is not the final determination,” Wilson told us at the time, referring to the circuit court ruling. “There are quite a few avenues we can use to effectuate justice.  There are plenty of tools in the toolbox and we are going to use every single one at our disposal. All options are on the table.”

Our prosecutorial sources also reminded us that Nettles and his staffers have been in attendance at multiple state-level Harrell hearings – although this is the first time any coordination between the U.S. Attorney’s office and the S.C. Attorney General’s office in relation to the Harrell probe has been suggested.

Obviously we will keep our ears to the ground and continue to keep a very close eye on this ongoing investigation …

Harrell and Wilson are set to appear before the S.C. Supreme Court on June 24 to argue the merits of their respective positions.  Wilson will argue that his grand jury probe of Harrell is a criminal investigation that should be permitted to continue, while attorneys for Harrell will claim that the powerful Speaker is guilty only of ethics violations – which are the exclusive purview of the S.C. House of Representatives.

The outcome of that decision could wind up having a tremendous impact on the balance of power in the Palmetto State …