S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson might be willing to investigate the use of campaign funds by state House Speaker Bobby Harrell, though he apparently is in no rush to do so.
In a prepared statement issued Tuesday afternoon after groups representing the state’s political spectrum at a press conference called on South Carolina’s top prosecutor to launch an investigation, Wilson said his office would not do anything until after a separate investigation by the S.C. House Ethics Committee.
“Should the House Ethics Committee not act, this Office is then prepared to do what is in the public’s best interest,” Wilson said, though he didn’t specify what he meant by the “public’s best interest.”
The statement cited a state law allowing the House Ethics Committee to refer certain ethical matters involving House members to the Attorney General’s Office for a criminal investigation.
“For that reason, it is premature for this office to ask SLED (State Law Enforcement Division) to investigate the matter at this time,” Wilson said.
“There is an established record of our following the legal process,” Wilson said. “It must be given the chance to proceed as designed by law. That is what we will do in this instance.”
State law requires the House and Senate Ethics committees, instead of the separate State Ethics Commission, to investigate ethical violations by members of their respective chambers, though the legislative committees have no jurisdiction in criminal matters.
But no state law says the Attorney General’s Office must wait to launch a criminal investigation until after a House Ethics Committee investigation of the Harrell case, according to several veteran criminal South Carolina attorneys interviewed for a story Monday in The Nerve. State law bans the legislative ethics committees from conducting any investigations less than 50 days before an election in which the member in question is a candidate.
Asked Tuesday afternoon to clarify Wilson’s latest statement regarding the law, Wilson spokesman Mark Powell didn’t provide an answer, saying he had to go to a meeting.
The Nerve pointed out in Monday’s story the Attorney General’s Office previously made statements backing away from an investigation of Harrell, even though the state grand jury – a powerful investigative tool of the attorney general – indicted then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard on campaign-finance violations earlier this year. Traditionally, full-time SLED agents have been assigned to the state grand jury.
Although he declined to comment on Harrell’s case, Reggie Lloyd, the immediate past SLED director who also has served as the U.S. attorney for South Carolina and a state circuit judge, told The Nerve that the state grand jury has the authority to investigate politicians accused of padding campaign-account reimbursements of legitimate expenses.
The Post and Courier on Sept. 24 reported that Harrell had 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 his costs of using his private airplane for legislative and political trips.
The Post and Courier reported that federal flight logs show that Harrell flew between Charleston and Columbia more than 110 times since 2008; and that other destinations included Miami, Key West and Augusta during the Masters Golf Tournament. Harrell, a licensed pilot, repaid himself nearly $250,000 for travel expenses over the past four years, according to the newspaper.
The Associated Press reported on Sept. 26 that Harrell put about $23,000 back into his campaign account after informing the State Ethics Commission in a letter he didn’t have records supporting that expense amount. Harrell said although he couldn’t produce the supporting documents, he believed that all of those expenses were legitimate, according to the AP story.
Harrell, a Charleston Republican, has repeatedly denied that he violated any state ethics laws; and he has not been charged either criminally or administratively with any such violations.
Harrell spokesman Greg Foster attended Tuesday’s press conference at the State House. He didn’t immediately comment when approached afterward by a Nerve reporter, though he said he would provide a prepared statement later to reporters.
Foster didn’t provide a statement to The Nerve, though according to other media reports, he said it has been “thoroughly demonstrated, and reported by media outlets statewide, that Speaker Harrell is in full compliance with all aspects of the Ethics Act.”
“These political groups are attacking the Speaker for using privately raised campaign funds to pay for many expenses that could have been charged to taxpayers,” Foster said.
“Unparalleled, Uncontrolled” Power
During Tuesday’s press conference, John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, said Harrell “needs to come clean and answer any and all questions.”
“Campaign money needs to be restricted to campaign uses alone, period,” Crangle said. “No alternatives. No uses to travel across the state or going to Key West.”
Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, said South Carolina’s House speaker has “unparalleled, uncontrolled,” power; and that no public officials are stepping up to hold the speaker accountable.
Crangle earlier provided The Nerve with a copy of a Sept. 28 letter from the Attorney General’s Office rejecting his request for an investigation into Harrell’s use of campaign funds.
Crangle said Tuesday he believes that the state attorney general or governor won’t investigate Harrell because they’re afraid of retaliation from the speaker.
“(Harrell) has a huge amount of influence over the legislative budgetary process,” Crangle said. “The House can cut the attorney general’s budget by 50 percent, 75 percent…so I think they’re afraid of budgetary retaliation.”
Besides Common Cause and the Policy Council, other groups represented at Tuesday’s press conference included the South Carolina Progressive Network, South Carolina New Democrats, South Carolina Campaign for Liberty and RINO Hunt.
Talbert Black, interim state coordinator of Campaign for Liberty, said his review found that Harrell reimbursed himself far more for his plane trips than allowed under federal mileage rates for private planes.
Brett Bursey, the South Carolina Progressive Network’s executive director, said the “problem is not Bobby Harrell.”
“The problem is money,” he said. “Everyone agrees that money has corrupted our political system. We have a system that allows money to influence politics in a way that in most countries that have elections, you would go to jail.”
Phil Noble, president of South Carolina New Democrats, said Harrell’s case is a “symptom of a much larger, more pervasive problem.”
“That problem is a cancer of corruption that has affected government and politics in South Carolina,” he said. “This cancer of corruption is affecting nearly every part of our politics.”
Charleston Paper Pressured?
Speakers were fired up not only about Harrell’s use of campaign funds, but also about The Post and Courier’s Oct. 2 printed correction to the newspaper’s original story about the Harrell case. They contended the correction was unnecessary, and that the newspaper was intimidated to write it.
The correction said that “earlier versions of this story need correcting. South Carolina law does not require House Speaker Bobby Harrell to produce for the public receipts or itemized invoices accounting for how he spent campaign funds. It does require him to maintain the records, receipts or other proof of payment for campaign expenditures dating back four years.”
“Nowhere in this original article did they accuse Harrell of violating law,” RINO Hunt founder Harry Kibler told The Nerve. “They asked questions that Harrell refused to answer.”
“You guys in journalism – if you write something that is later proven to be wrong, you lose credibility, you lose readers,” Kibler continued. “It’s to (The Post and Courier’s) best interest to restate the facts rather than offer the apology – an apology that does not appear to have been warranted.”
Harrell issued a statement on his website Oct. 5 accusing The Post and Courier of writing “a political hit piece about me by misrepresenting my campaign’s reporting.”
Landess said Tuesday she was surprised by the newspaper’s correction.
“The thing that stung me the most about this – that I really haven’t seen ever – was The Post and Courierand their reaction to this,” she said.
“Nowhere did the reporter say that he (Harrell) was required to disclose his receipts,” Landess continued. “And they apologize for something that wasn’t a mistake, and the speaker’s on the road saying that ‘they admitted that they falsely accused me.’”
On a larger scale, Landess said Harrell’s case shows why there needs to be ethics reform in South Carolina.
“There should not be any self-policing in the Legislature, and we have seen that not work pretty much every time. It’s a secret process controlled by their colleagues.”
The Policy Council in May released an eight-point reform agenda, including ending lawmakers’ ability to police themselves.
Investigative reporter Rick Brundrett contributed to this story. Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.