Embattled House Speaker Bobby Harrell faced his colleagues for the first time Tuesday since state Attorney General Alan Wilson referred an ethics complaint against Harrell to the State Law Enforcement Division on Valentine’s Day.
The legislative day proceeded without any public mention of the controversy, and GOP House members contacted Tuesday by The Nerve didn’t want to talk about it.
The House Majority Caucus, comprised of Republicans, met before and after Tuesday’s House floor session, as did the Democratic Minority Caucus. It’s unknown if any GOP House members privately raised questions during those caucus gatherings about Harrell’s ability to continue serving as House speaker – temporarily or permanently.
Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, had a terse email response to questions by The Nerve if the ethics complaint against Harrell caused concerns in the GOP Caucus, or if he had anything to say regarding the Charleston Republican.
“Nope,” Taylor wrote. “That’s between Ashley and Bobby. Not my battle.”
Taylor was referring to South Carolina Policy Council President Ashley Landess, who filed the ethics complaint Thursday with Wilson on behalf of the Policy Council. The Policy Council is the parent organization of The Nerve.
Upon departing an afternoon post-session caucus session Tuesday, Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, declined any comment on Harrell.
Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, told The Nerve because he has been focused on his efforts to “nullify” South Carolina’s implementation of the federal health care law, he hasn’t followed recent events involving Harrell.
Other Republicans didn’t immediately respond to emails or phone calls Tuesday from The Nerve seeking comment on Harrell. They included:
- House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White of Anderson County;
- House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Delleney of Chester County;
- Rick Quinn of Lexington County;
- Tommy Pope of York County;
- Jenny Horne of Dorchester County;
- Gary Simrill of York County; and
- Ralph Norman of York County. Last week, Norman, who unsuccessfully challenged Harrell for speaker in 2010, told the (Columbia) Free Times after the ethics complaint was filed that “a lot of things will be set in motion.”
On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Richland County did not respond to phone calls or emails from The Nerve Tuesday.
House members were on furlough last week as the ethics cloud hanging over Harrell’s head got darker with the filing of the ethics complaint. Wilson’s office asked SLED to conduct a preliminary inquiry to determine if the complaint against Harrell warranted a formal criminal investigation.
The complaint boils down to five matters by requesting that Wilson’s office investigate whether Harrell:
- Used his office for his financial benefit or that of his family business;
- Used campaign funds for personal purposes;
- Failed to maintain required records documenting his campaign expenditures;
- Adequately itemized campaign reimbursements as required by state law; and
- Violated state law by appointing his brother to a state judicial screening panel.
“We do not file this complaint lightly or without supporting documentation,” Landess wrote in an accompanying letter to Wilson. “Indeed, we hoped that by now these concerns would have been investigated and addressed. But months later the public still has no answers as to a pattern of alleged continuing ethics violations by the Speaker of the House.”
Harrell has publicly called the complaint baseless, though neither he nor his spokesmen, Greg Foster, responded to The Nerve’s requests for comment.
A caucus meeting could have been presented an opportunity to raise the issue if members believed Harrell needed to immediately step down as speaker.
Ironically, Harrell called for the resignation of former Gov. Mark Sanford when Sanford’s ethical issues related to his extramarital affair tarnished his leadership in 2009. Sanford, a Republican, did not return a phone call Tuesday from The Nerve seeking comment on the Harrell matter.
“Far too much time is being occupied with daily questions related to the next ‘Sanford issue’ and is pushing aside the ability of our state to deal with the pressing issues it faces,” Harrell wrote in his Sept. 8, 2009, letter, to Sanford.
Harrell continued: “This is a critical time for South Carolina to have strong and effective leadership for our people. Unfortunately, the recent controversies and negative publicity surrounding your personal life and administration make it clear that you are not in a position to lead us in that direction. Thus for the benefit of the people of South Carolina, I respectfully request that you resign as Governor and allow our state to close this chapter and begin anew.”
Harrell, who became House speaker in 2005, has faced his own ethics controversy in recent months, though he has denied publicly that he has done anything wrong. He has not been charged with any criminal or administrative violations.
The Nerve reported last month that the five Republican members of the 10-member House Ethics Committee collectively had received $13,000 in donations since the 2008 election cycle from a political action committee affiliated with Harrell, known as the Palmetto Leadership Council.
Landess publicly raised other concerns during a Jan. 22 hearing before the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform. Landess revealed then that the Policy Council was considering filing a formal ethics complaint against Harrell. She cited documents obtained by the Policy Council and The Nerve that raised questions about Harrell’s:
- Dealings with the state Board of Pharmacy on various matters involving his pharmaceutical business;
- Reimbursement of campaign funds for certain expenses connected to the use of his private airplane; and
- Appointment of his brother, John Harrell, to the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, a 10-member panel that nominates judicial candidates for election by the Legislature.
The Nerve recently reported, based on state documents obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, that high-ranking officials with two state pharmacy organizations in 2010 expressed concerns then that Harrell used his legislative position to help his Charleston-based pharmaceutical company, known as Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals.
Meanwhile, in a related matter, John Crangle, director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, told The Nerve Tuesday afternoon that Wilson had agreed to return several thousand dollars in campaign contributions tied to Harrell. Published media reports put the amount at $7,000.
Crangle said, however, that even if the campaign contributions were returned, he believes that Wilson should recuse himself from handling the ethics complaint against Harrell to avoid any conflict-of-interest questions, and transfer the matter to a special prosecutor. He said the issue would be discussed during a Common Cause board meeting Thursday.
Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.