A State Law Enforcement Division spokesman said Tuesday an investigation of S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell is “still open and ongoing,” seven months after the South Carolina Policy Council –The Nerve’s parent organization – filed an ethics complaint against the Charleston Republican.
Contacted by The Nerve, SLED spokesman Thom Berry declined to comment on specifics of the investigation, or when agents expected to wrap up their work.
Once the investigation is completed, SLED’s case file “will be presented to the proper prosecutorial authority; then they will review it and make a determination where it goes from there,” Berry said, adding that the prosecutor could refer the case back to SLED for further investigation.
“We have been cooperating fully, and the investigation is sort of wrapping up,” Charleston attorney Bart Daniel, one of Harrell’s lawyers and a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina, told The Nerve when contacted Tuesday.
“We expect a positive result in the near future,” Daniel added, though he declined to discuss specifics of the investigation.
Daniel said after completing its investigation, SLED will turn over its case file to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office for review. The Policy Council on Feb. 14 filed its ethics complaint against Harrell with the Attorney General’s Office, which then referred it to SLED.
Ironically, Daniel led the federal prosecution of more than two dozen state lawmakers, lobbyists and others charged in an FBI bribery sting known as “Operation Lost Trust,” which became public in 1990 when Daniel was the U.S.attorney. Since returning to private practice in 1992, Daniel has specialized in defending accused white-collar criminals and handling health care, environmental, securities and business cases, according to his law firm’s website.
Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Harrell’s other attorney – Gedney Howe, a well-known Charleston attorney who successfully defended a state lawmaker in the Lost Trust case – referred questions to Harrell, noting, “Bobby is a big boy and speaks for himself, so give him a call.”
As has been his longstanding practice with The Nerve, Harrell did not respond Tuesday to a phone message seeking comment on the SLED investigation.
The complaint filed by the Policy Council asked authorities to 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.
Harrell, who has been the House speaker since 2005 and was elected to the House in 1992, has denied publicly that he has done anything wrong, and he has not been charged with any criminal or administrative violations.
Harrell’s use of campaign funds came under fire after The Post and Courier reported last September 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 the cost of flying his private plane to political or legislative events.
The Associated Press later reported that Harrell returned about $23,000 to his campaign account after informing the State Ethics Commission in a letter that he didn’t have records supporting that expense amount. Harrell at the time said he believed all of those expenses were legitimate and later said those records were lost in an office move.
State law allows campaign funds to be used to cover “reasonable and necessary travel expenses,” and that those funds cannot be “converted to personal use.” Another section of the law requires that candidates for public office “maintain and preserve all receipted bills and amounts” required under the law for four years.
The Nerve last October reported, citing flight and House records, that in 2008, Harrell took at least nine weekly round trips with his private plane between Charleston and Columbia when the Legislature was in session, and also received car-mileage reimbursements for 21 weekly round trips.
The House was in session 23 weeks that year – seven fewer weeks than the combined total of Harrell’s weekly car and plane trips for the period – raising questions about his flying and driving patterns during that session.
In January, The Nerve revealed that Harrell in 2006 asked that state Board of Pharmacy, a division of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, in a handwritten note on his official House speaker letterhead for “urgent attention” to his request for a “new non-dispensing drug outlet permit.”
Harrell in recent years has been the president of a Charleston-based repackaging pharmaceutical company called Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals, which also goes by the name of PrimaryRX. The permit sought by Harrell in 2006 would have allowed his company to administer and store pharmaceutical drugs.
The Nerve’s January story also revealed that in a 2010 letter to hospitals statewide, Harrell pushed to expand his pharmaceutical business to emergency rooms, pointing out in the first sentence of his letter that he was “writing you today not in the capacity as Speaker of the House of South Carolina, but as a business owner.”
State law bans public officials from using their office to “obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”
Under another state law, a public official cannot “cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer or advancement of a family member to a state or local office or position” supervised or managed by the public official. The same law bans public officials from participating in “an action relating to the discipline” of their relatives.
As House speaker, Harrell appointed his brother, John Harrell, a Charleston attorney, to the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which nominates judicial candidates for election by the General Assembly. By law, the speaker appoints half of the 10-member panel.
State law says non-legislative commission members are “subject to a right of removal at any time by the person appointing him,” which would mean Bobby Harrell would have the authority to remove his brother from the panel in contradiction to the other law banning public officials from disciplining their relatives.
Ashley Landess, president of the Policy Council, publicly announced in January that the nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank was considering filing a complaint against Harrell with the House Ethics Committee, though she expressed concerns then about the committee’s objectivity. The complaint was filed the next month with Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office.
The way state law is written, Harrell would not have to recuse himself from a House Ethics Committee investigation if he were the focus of the committee’s inquiry. The law would require the committee to report its findings on Harrell in writing to the speaker.
If Harrell decided to appeal any recommended sanctions against him by the committee, he would be required to convene the entire House to uphold or reject the committee’s action.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Following The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.