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House Speaker Reimbursed for Flying and Driving During Legislative Sessions

In 2008, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell took at least nine weekly round trips with his private plane between his hometown of Charleston and Columbia when the Legislature was in session Tuesdays through Thursdays, flight logs reviewed by The Nerve show.

During the same session, the GOP lawmaker received a total of $2,136 in car-mileage reimbursements, House records show. Based on a House mileage reimbursement rate that generally restricts payments to one round trip per week during session and the driving distance between Harrell's home and the Capitol, that works out to 21 weekly round trips for the period.

But House Journal records show that the chamber was in session 23 weeks that year (including one week in which it met for just one day) – seven fewer weeks than the combined total of Harrell’s weekly car and plane trips for the period – leaving questions about his flying and driving patterns during session.

The Nerve’s review found similar discrepancies in 2010 between Harrell’s flight logs and car-mileage reimbursement records.

That year, the House was in session 20 weeks (including one week in which it met for only one day). But flight records show he took at least five round-trip flights from his home to Columbia during those session weeks, while potentially making 18 weekly round trips by car at the same time, based on mileage-reimbursement payments.

Harrell has repeatedly denied that he broke any laws, and he has not been charged either criminally or administratively with any violations.

The Nerve on Thursday left several written and phone messages with Harrell and his spokesman, Greg Foster, seeking comment on the discrepancies in the trip records, but neither responded.

Meanwhile, several grassroots leaders on Thursday met with S.C Attorney General Alan Wilson to renew their calls that the state’s top prosecutor conduct a criminal investigation into Harrell’s reimbursements from his campaign account for trips he took over the past several years with his private plane.

Talbert Black of Lexington County, interim state coordinator of Campaign for Liberty, told The Nerve afterward that Wilson informed him and four other grassroots leaders who attended the meeting that his office wouldn’t decide whether to conduct any criminal investigation until after a separate, non-criminal investigation by the House Ethics Committee, which, according to Wilson, likely won’t consider doing anything until after the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“I was a little disappointed in that,” Black said. “What I want to see him (Wilson) do is pick it up immediately and do what he sees is appropriate, which I hope is an investigation.”

“To his credit,” Black added, “he said he wants to make sure it’s handled appropriately (by the House Ethics Committee).”

The Nerve earlier this month reported, citing interviews with veteran criminal lawyers, that contrary to initial public statements made by the Attorney General’s Office, no state law requires Wilson to wait to conduct an investigation of Harrell until after a House Ethics Committee probe.

Black said after Thursday’s meeting with Wilson that the attorney general acknowledged his office has the “authority to take it up,” though he wanted to allow the House Ethics Committee to consider it first “out of professional courtesy.”

A coalition of diverse groups, including Black’s organization, the South Carolina Progressive Network, Common Cause of South Carolina, and the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, earlier this month publicly called on Wilson to launch an investigation into Harrell’s reimbursement of campaign funds.

‘Reasonable and Necessary’

State ethics law allows campaign funds to be used for “reasonable and necessary travel expenses” for political events, though it doesn’t define “reasonable and necessary.” The law says that campaign funds can’t be “converted to personal use.”

The Nerve last week asked House Ethics Committee attorney Emma Dean if her committee had issued any formal opinions defining “reasonable and necessary” expenses. Dean initially said she would research the request but didn’t provide an answer and never responded to multiple follow-up messages from The Nerve.

Lyn Odom, the Senate Ethics Committee research director and an attorney, told The Nerve in written responses that his committee hadn’t issued any formal opinions on the matter; and that he couldn’t recall the issue “ever being raised since I have held this position” for the past 3 ½ years.

As with Odom, Cathy Hazelwood, deputy director and chief attorney for the State Ethics Commission, which has no jurisdiction to investigate or punish state lawmakers, said in written responses to The Nerve that her agency hasn’t issued any formal opinions defining “reasonable and necessary” travel expenses. She added, though, the commission has “always required the use of a mileage log for travel.”

The Nerve asked Hazelwood how her office would advise public officials or employees under the jurisdiction of her agency about what they legally could reimburse themselves from campaign funds if they used their private planes to attend political events or for appointments directly related to their public jobs.

“I’m going to punt on this question as I think the (ethics) commission needs to answer the threshold question of whether using a private plane is an allowable reimbursement,” Hazelwood replied. “I have a real problem with our telling folks that they can’t fill their car up but must keep a mileage log, but if you fly with a (private) plane, you can spend $800 on a flight.”

Harrell received a total of $7,476 in mileage reimbursement payments, which are funded with state tax dollars, for car trips during legislative session weeks from 2008 through 2011, according to S.C. House records provided earlier to The Nerve. So far this year, he has received $1,958 in mileage payments, S.C. comptroller general records show.

House members generally are allowed to be reimbursed for one round trip by car from their home to the State House during session weeks, which typically run Tuesdays through Thursdays, according to information from the House clerk’s office. The reimbursement rate for the House since 2008 has been 44.5 cents per mile, according to the clerk’s office; there is no corresponding rate under state law for lawmakers who use their private planes for official business.

Official car travel by House members outside of the regular legislative session also is reimbursable, but only if the covered trip is first approved by the House speaker, according to a state budget proviso renewed annually by lawmakers.

House records provided to The Nerve separated mileage reimbursements for session and non-session periods.

Large Travel Reimbursements

From 2008 through Oct. 10 of this year, Harrell reimbursed himself a total of $234,171 from his campaign account for legislative and other trips, according to The Nerve’s review of his campaign expenditure reports filed with the State Ethics Commission. No details of the trips were specified in virtually all of the 40 payments Harrell made to himself.

The reports also didn’t indicate whether Harrell flew his own plane, drove or took other transportation; though nine of the payments to him were for at least $10,000 each, and three were for more than $20,000 each, which would suggest he was reimbursed for use of his private plane in those instances.

The Nerve’s review of flight logs shows that Harrell flew his single-engine Cirrus SR22 plane nearly 43,000 miles over 265 trip legs from Jan. 1, 2008, through June 26 of this year. If the current federal mileage reimbursement rate of $1.31 per mile for airplanes were in effect for the 4.5-year period, Harrell would have been entitled to receive a total of $56,325, though an aviation attorney and a certified public accountant interviewed this week by The Nerve said that rate applies only to federal employees who use private planes for federal business.

The Post and Courier reported on Sept. 24 that Harrell offered no details to the Charleston newspaper regarding more than $325,000 that he had reimbursed himself from his campaign account since 2008. Citing an email response from Harrell, the newspaper reported that many of the reimbursements he made to himself covered the costs of his private plane trips.

The Associated Press reported on Sept. 26 that Harrell returned about $23,000 to his campaign account after informing the State Ethics Commission in a letter he didn’t have records supporting that expense amount. Harrell told the AP then that although he couldn’t produce the supporting documents, he believed all of those expenses were legitimate.

State ethics law says that candidates for public office “must maintain and preserve all receipted bills and accounts” required under the law for four years.

Harrell showed some documents to an AP reporter that he said verified his trip expenses, though he wouldn’t let the reporter make copies of those records.

In a story last week in the Post and Courier, Harrell’s spokesman, Foster, said Harrell paid himself about $94,000 out of his campaign account for flights on his plane between the summer of 2008 and 2011; and that he reimbursed himself less than the fair market value of his flights, using several estimates from charter air services.

The newspaper also reported, citing information from Harrell’s office, that besides fuel expenses, the reimbursements reflected costs of plane ownership, including insurance, property taxes, loan interest and depreciation costs.

Hazelwood, of the State Ethics Commission, told The Nerve that the state car-mileage reimbursement rate of 55.5 cents per mile, as allowed by the Internal Revenue Service, factors in such things as vehicle property taxes and insurance.

But she added the commission would “absolutely question reimbursement from campaign funds” for car-mileage reimbursements above the 55.5-cent-per-mile cap.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

Accountability Ethics General Assembly Transparency Legislative Power Trip

Lyn Odom S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell S.C. House Ethics Committee Cathy Hazelwood State Ethics Commission S.C. Senate Ethics Committee Greg Foster Emma Dean