The decision this week by Attorney General Alan Wilson and State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel to turn the investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell over to the state grand jury is a major turning point for South Carolina. At the very least, the decision should ensure there is no room for a whitewashing.
We filed the complaint against Speaker Harrell because the evidence was overwhelming that he was abusing his power for personal gain. From using his campaign fund to pay for his private plane to strong-arming regulators to benefit his business, the Speaker’s actions raised questions that demanded answers. Had he stepped forward to explain himself, the whole matter might well have been resolved. But he has refused to do so, thus fueling the concern that the politician with more power than any other in our state may have violated multiple ethics laws.
The Speaker continues to claim he’s done nothing wrong. Instead, he blames me for initiating a “smear campaign” out of personal spite, and now claims the Attorney General is also out to get him. He even suggested that both SLED and the Attorney General’s office broke protocol to reassure him that he had nothing to worry about, a shocking charge if it were true (which I am confident it isn’t).
He could still explain himself, release his records proving he’s violated no laws, and put this matter largely to rest. Instead, he expresses outrage that the system didn’t protect him, and has even, bizarrely, demanded the release of the SLED report. The Speaker knows the report is now part of the secret grand jury investigation, yet he demands that process be suspended and an exception made for him, further demonstrating the degree to which he views himself as above the law.
And who can blame him for thinking that? For decades, a handful of powerful legislative leaders ruled this state with virtually all power and almost no accountability. Until now. It is a sign of changing times and public pressure that a reporter (Renee Dudley with the Post and Courier) uncovered the Speaker’s campaign spending, and that other reporters have kept up the pressure to demand answers (WIS-TV’s Jody Barr has been filing Freedom of Information requests for more than a year). Many organizations are more vocal than ever to demand the kind of change we’ve never talked about in this state.
Finally we are fighting the real battle in South Carolina – the concentration of power and secrecy inherent in our government structure. That’s the system that produced the current climate of corruption, and that system absolutely failed to hold the Speaker accountable. With the exception of Attorney General Alan Wilson – who is doing his job in the face of heavy pressure – none of the elected “leaders” of this state stepped forward to restore public trust and demand answers on citizens’ behalf. It took the Policy Council to file the complaint, and the combined effort of groups as diverse as Campaign for Liberty, the Coastal Conservation League, Conservative Voice, and Common Cause to ensure that public pressure remained high for resolution.
This process has underscored the need for full reform of this state’s government. This is no time for weak “ethics” reform in the face of the dangerous concentration of power and secrecy that makes our government the nation’s most corrupt. It’s time to end legislators’ ability to self-police when that process has so clearly failed, and to abolish lawmakers’ ability to unilaterally choose our judges and control executive functions with no oversight or accountability.
The system that should have had a watchful eye on the activities of the state’s most powerful leaders does not work. It took citizens to force accountability for the state’s most powerful politician. Yes, vigilance will always be necessary to ensure the protection of our own liberty. But it should not have been this hard. Rather, our state government should be a true republic in which checks and balances are inherent. It’s the only way to ensure the people ultimately can control their government. We haven’t been able to do that in this state, and that needs to change. Nothing else is more important, and indeed nothing else is possible until we tear down the concentration of power and secrecy that led us to this point.