Longtime S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell faces possible suspension from office after a Richland County grand jury this morning issued nine indictments alleging misconduct in office and violations of the state Ethics Act.
One of the nine charges – common law misconduct in office – carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence, according to several attorneys contacted by The Nerve. Under state law, a General Assembly member indicted in state or federal court with a crime that has a sentence of two or more years, a felony, a crime that involves moral turpitude, or a criminal election-law violation must be suspended immediately without pay by the presiding officer of the member’s respective chamber.
Contacted earlier this afternoon by The Nerve, House Speaker Pro Tempore Jay Lucas, R-Darlington and an attorney, said he had just learned of the indictments and didn’t immediately know whether Harrell faces an automatic suspension with the indictments, or whether the House would have to be called to Columbia to vote on the matter.
“I’m in the middle of it right now,” he said.
House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville and an attorney, could not be reached immediately for comment.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe of Orangeburg, who, according to earlier public statements by Harrell, was assigned to the case by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson after the term of the state grand jury investigating the speaker had recently expired, declined comment when contacted by The Nerve this afternoon.
The Nerve left phone messages this afternoon with Harrell and his attorneys – Bart Daniel and Gedney Howe, both of Charleston – seeking comment on the indictments but did not receive an immediate response.
The Charleston Republican, who was first elected to the 124-member House in 1992 and has been the House speaker since 2005, has repeatedly denied publicly that he did anything wrong.
The state grand jury began its investigation of Harrell in January after a 10-month investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division, which was based on a public-corruption complaint filed with Wilson in February 2013 by the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.
All nine indictments issued this morning came from a Richland County grand jury, not the state grand jury. A county grand jury has the same authority as a state grand jury to indict an elected official with state Ethics Act violations and misconduct in office.
Under one of the indictments for false reporting under the Ethics Act, Harrell is accused of:
- Converting $93,958.50 in campaign funds from 2009 through 2012 for his personal use for expenses of his privately owned airplane;
- Reporting $96,381.46 in campaign expenditures for legislative travel during the same period “despite the fact that some of the travel expenditures were personal in nature,” and that some expenses were covered with payments from “other sources”;
- Using $70,286.46 from his campaign account to pay the salary of an administrative assistant at his State Farm insurance business; and
- Spending campaign money to “pay credit card debt and to pay for goods and services for his home, family and friends that were not for any purposes related to his campaign for or position in the South Carolina House of Representatives.”
The same count alleges that Harrell “concealed this unlawful payment scheme by various activities, including but not limited to”:
- Changing and altering the entries in his pilot logbook;
- Creating flight schedules to “justify payments from his campaign account, when in fact some of the listed flights did not occur or were personal and not related to any official or campaign purpose”;
- Misinforming law enforcement officers about the “purposes and circumstances surrounding expenditures”; and
- Misinforming the House Ethics Committee about “the reason he reimbursed his campaign account.”
Four of the indictments separately allege that Harrell paid himself out of his campaign account for four “non-existent” legislative trips between Charleston and Columbia in 2009. Another indictment alleges he paid himself $3,874.50 out of his campaign account for the use of his private plane for a personal trip in 2009 for himself, family and friends to a high school baseball tournament in Florida. He also is accused in another indictment of using campaign funds in 2012 to cover the salary of the administrative assistant at his insurance office.
All of indictments alleging violations of the State Ethics Act are misdemeanors that carry a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $5,000 fine. The statutory misconduct-in-office charge, which alleges that Harrell, “while an elected member of the House of Representatives and Candidate for State Office did misrepresent the purpose and travel and other expenditures in order to obtain personal profit and benefit,” carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
The common law misconduct-in-office charge, which carries the maximum 10-year prison sentence, alleges that Harrell “willfully and dishonestly failed to properly and faithfully discharge the duties of his office imposed upon him by law; to wit, by using the office and position of House Member and by using his campaign funds to obtain personal profit and benefit to himself, the Defendant did commit acts or omissions in breach of his duty of good faith and accountability to the public.”
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.