From 2008 through 2012, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell reimbursed himself more than $234,000 from his campaign account for legislative and other trips, campaign expenditure reports show.
The quarterly reports filed with the State Ethics Commission don’t say whether Harrell, a licensed private pilot, flew his single-engine Cirrus SR22 to any of the events, though the records show that of the 40 travel-expense reimbursements to himself, nine were for at least $10,000 each and three were for more than $20,000 each, as The Nerve reported in October 2012.
Over the past year, however, Harrell’s campaign expenditure reports list no specific travel reimbursements to himself as he had done in previous years, The Nerve found Tuesday in a review of the expenditures. The Charleston Republican’s largest listed travel expenditure last year was $365 for a March trip to Myrtle Beach under the category of “legislative travel,” records show.
The expenditure reports for 2013 were filed after The Nerve and other media in later 2012 raised questions about campaign reimbursements by the Charleston Republican related to the use of his private plane.
In February, the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – filed a complaint with state Attorney General Alan Wilson, asking for an investigation of, among other things, whether Harrell’s campaign reimbursements connected with his private plane use violated state ethics law.
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.”
On Tuesday – the first day of this year’s legislative session – Harrell held a press conference to reiterate his innocence, though he dodged reporters’ questions when asked why he still refuses to publicly release detailed campaign expense records related to the complaint.
“I can say plenty about this unprecedented process, but I’d rather let the facts speak for themselves,” he said.
The Policy Council’s complaint also requested an investigation into whether Harrell violated state ethics law by using his office for his financial benefit or that of his family business. In January 2013, The Nervereported that Harrell, president of a Charleston-based repackaging pharmaceutical company called Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals, in 2006 asked the state Board of Pharmacy in a handwritten note on his official House speaker letterhead for “urgent attention” to his request for a permit that would have allowed his company to administer and store pharmaceutical drugs.
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,” The Nerve’s January 2013 story revealed.
Secretary of State records reviewed Tuesday by The Nerve show that the company was dissolved on Dec. 3; the documents list Harrell as the company president and David Grimm, who, according to records, is Harrell’s nephew, as the vice-president. No reason was given in the documents for the dissolution.
The company was first dissolved in April, though Harrell the next month signed papers reversing that action, as The Nerve reported in May. Harrell quit listing his ownership in the company on his state income-disclosure forms starting in 2012, records show.
Under state law, a dissolved company “may not carry on any business except that (is) appropriate to wind up and liquidate its business and affairs.”
On Monday, Wilson’s office announced that the Harrell ethics case was being referred to the state grand jury, which investigates public-corruption cases, having the authority to subpoena witnesses and documents to help it decide whether to issue an indictment.
Harrell on Tuesday was on the offensive, holding a press conference in the Blatt office building on the State House grounds, which houses House members’ offices, about an hour before the start of this year’s legislative session.
“I fully expected that any day now, there would be a release from the A.G.’s Office that the investigation was over, and that there was no factual reason to pursue it any further,” Harrell said, reading from a prepared statement. “To have that expectation and then get blindsided by the events of yesterday was more than just disappointing.”
“I also don’t believe that it was a coincidence this release was made on the eve of the legislative session,” Harrell continued. “I believe it was intended to inflict political damage to me. However, the facts still are that I have not broken the law.”
Harrell four times called on Wilson to publicly release a State Law Enforcement Division report of its 10-month investigation into the allegations against him, contending that it will “show that my actions and the actions of my campaign were in line with the State Ethics Act,.” though he later said he had not seen the report. He also claimed that the report could legally be released because Wilson’s office had “breached the confidentiality” with Monday’s announcement about referring the case to the state grand jury.
But Harrell didn’t directly answer several questions by reporters about why he has refused to publicly release detailed expenditure records to back up his assertions of innocence.
“Because the (SLED) report needs to be released with everything in the report, which includes all those materials,” he said in response to one of the questions.
Contacted afterward by The Nerve, Wilson spokesman Mark Powell gave the following prepared response to Harrell’s statements at the press conference: “This is an ongoing criminal investigation before the state grand jury. It is inappropriate for us to comment. As for the release of a report, it would be unlawful for our office or SLED to release any report in any ongoing criminal investigation.”
The Nerve on Tuesday left written and phone messages for Harrell seeking comment on his recent campaign expenditure forms and his private plane use, and the recorded dissolution of Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals. As has been his usual practice with The Nerve, Harrell did not respond.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.