Yesterday, our intrepid research director Jenn Wood detailed a major escalation in one of the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ crime and corruption saga’s highest-profile spinoff stories – the ongoing drama surrounding embattled Colleton County clerk of court Becky Hill.
Like everything connected to the Murdaugh story … the Hill saga is complicated.
To recap: Hill stands accused of tampering with the jury that convicted Alex Murdaugh earlier this year for the murder of his wife and younger son at the family’s hunting property near Islandton, S.C. Those tampering allegations are at the heart of Murdaugh’s bid for a new trial.
Murdaugh’s attorneys – led by Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin – have accused Hill of “betray(ing) her oath of office for money and fame,” allegedly influencing jurors against Murdaugh in an effort to sell copies of her book about the trial, Behind the Doors of Justice.
Hill has steadfastly denied the tampering allegations She also issued specific denials in an affidavit (.pdf) submitted by the state opposing Murdaugh’s bid for a new trial. As we previously reported, initial indications pointed to there being some substance to Hill’s denials.
As I reported late last week, Hill is also staring down two investigations led (for the moment) by the S.C. State Ethics Commission (SCSEC). One ethics complaint accused Hill of “unethically and potentially unlawfully” using her office to enrich herself by obtaining and releasing confidential information – some of which later appeared in her book. The second complaint accused Hill of misappropriating public funds from multiple accounts – and then allegedly misrepresenting those misappropriations to county officials. Ethics investigators have subpoenaed records related to no fewer than seven different Colleton County accounts which flow through Hill’s office – as well as her bank records.
Both of those cases are expected to be referred to SLED for criminal investigation.
In the meantime, our Andy Fancher reported last month that Hill’s son, Colleton County information technology director Jeffrey “Colt” Hill, had been arrested on one count of wiretapping for having “willfully and feloniously intercept(ed) electronic phone communication.” Our outlet is preparing a follow-up report on the Jeffrey Hill drama, but his arrest appears to have been tied at least in part to an effort to keep Becky Hill abreast of the investigations into her conduct, sources close to the probe have told us.
Of interest? Hill’s cell phone was seized pursuant to a search warrant issued in connection with the arrest of her son.
All of these investigations are careening toward the office of S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson after the state’s fourteenth circuit solicitor, Duffie Stone, sent Wilson a letter dated November 28, 2023 asking him to convene a statewide grand jury into the Hill matter.
“I am formally asking that you impanel the state grand jury to continue this investigation,” Stone wrote.
(Click to view)
According to the solicitor, the panel’s ability to subpoena documents and compel testimony could be vital tools in uncovering “potential public corruption in Colleton County.”
Wilson responded to Stone yesterday, informing the solicitor he was “assuming jurisdiction” over the matter.
That response prompted a flood of conversation – and calls for Wilson to recuse himself from the case.
“I think it’s a good thing the attorney general is considering using the state grand jury to investigate these allegations,” Murdaugh attorney Harpootlian told this media outlet.
However, Harpootlian said lead Murdaugh prosecutor Creighton Waters – who is the top attorney staffed to the grand jury – “should recuse himself along with all the folks in the office who worked the trial.”
Which would include the attorney general himself …
According to Harpootlian, such recusals would allow “everyone to have faith that this is an independent investigation” and would avoid the appearance of favoritism.
In fact, Harpootlian suggested Wilson should “get someone else” to run the state grand jury – i.e. another solicitor.
“They’ve got a vested interest in maintaining Becky’s credibility,” Harpootlian said.
Similar concerns were raised previously by attorney Joe McCulloch – who represents several of the jurors who have alleged tampering on the part of the clerk. In a letter to the attorney general sent two weeks ago, McCulloch argued that “public confidence in our judicial system and the integrity and insurance of a fair trial should be the goal for all of us.”
“While I have great respect for you as a person and as a litigator, we should be able to agree that the attorney general’s office, having prosecuted the Murdaugh case for six long weeks, and SLED, having led the Murdaugh investigation, cannot reasonably be neutral in these matters,” McCulloch wrote in the letter (.pdf). “This is not a criticism but rather a reality of our adversarial system.”
I concur with McCulloch’s concerns. In fact, I’ve had some serious heartburn over SLED’s involvement on the investigatory side of this equation for some time, and I believe putting the various Hill cases under Waters’ direct authority at the statewide grand jury would be a huge mistake.
To be clear: I do not believe either Waters or SLED are corrupt – or that they would necessarily tilt the investigation one way or the other. Quite the contrary. I merely believe that – as the recent recusal of S.C. circuit court judge Clifton Newman demonstrated – it is vital for those investigating, prosecuting and adjudicating these matters to be completely independent.
Not just be perceived as such …
Having said that, I am not going to criticize the attorney general for something that hasn’t happened yet. In fact, as several sources close to the state’s top prosecutor have pointed out, his reply letter to Stone “doesn’t say what the office is going to do.” Indeed, it makes no mention of a referral to the state grand jury – let alone a referral managed by his office or by Murdaugh prosecutors within his office.
In other words, Wilson could very well be making plans to avoid the sort of conflicts referenced above.
How, specifically, could Wilson handle this referral request? He could …
- Refer the case to the statewide grand jury under his own office’s authority.
- Refer the case to the statewide grand jury under an appointed solicitor.
- Prosecute the allegations absent the assistance of a grand jury.
- Refer the allegations to another solicitor without grand jury support.
- Send the case back to the solicitor who referred it to him.
- Decline to prosecute the allegations altogether.
Bottom line? No one knows what Wilson is going to do … indeed, sources familiar with his thinking have indicated the purpose of this week’s brief, open-ended letter to Stone was to avoid staking himself out on any one decision as he “weighs all of his options.”
Wilson is “carefully considering his options,” one source close to the Hill investigations told us.
One thing that is clear: You can count on our media outlet to keep our audience apprised as soon as we hear of a path forward for this pivotal public corruption investigation. You can also count on our outlet share our thoughts as to whether that path is consistent with the ideals of independence and impartiality espoused above.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.
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