Five years ago last month, former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to six counts of misuse of campaign funds, and agreed to resign his speakership and House seat. According to the Richland County indictments, Harrell, who received three years’ probation, claimed campaign-fund reimbursements for legislative travel in his private airplane, though some of the travel was for personal purposes and other trips were entirely fabricated.
Using campaign dollars for non-campaign-related purposes is a longstanding legislative tradition that continues to this day, as The Nerve reported Wednesday in a story detailing, among other things, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman’s spending of nearly $15,000 this year from his campaign account on constituent “gifts.” And last week, The Nerve reported about state lawmakers who spent campaign funds this year on expenses related to trips to Egypt and other countries.
In these instances, lawmakers are using a loophole in state law allowing campaign expenditures related to elected officials’ campaigns or their “office” – a term that the law does not define.
Harrell’s case involved more than the misuse of campaign funds, according to a complaint that launched the criminal investigation – filed in February 2013 with the state Attorney General’s office by the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization. The complaint against Harrell provided evidence in five areas that the Policy Council asked the attorney general to investigate, including:
- Use of his office for his financial benefit or that of his family business;
- Use of campaign funds for personal purposes;
- Failure to maintain required records documenting his campaign expenditures;
- Failure to adequately itemized campaign reimbursements as required by state law; and
- Violating state law by appointing his brother to a state judicial screening panel.
Of these areas, only the second – use of campaign funds for personal purposes – was ultimately part of Harrell’s plea deal, which was handled by 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, a special prosecutor appointed by Attorney General Alan Wilson. Below is SCPC’s 2013 letter to Wilson asking him to open an investigation, as well as the formal complaint filed with his office.
SCPC’s letter to Attorney General Alan Wilson
I appreciate your decision to accept and consider the enclosed ethics Complaint against Speaker of the House, Robert Harrell, for what appears to be multiple, and possibly criminal, violations of state ethics laws, your consideration of the Complaint will be free of the multiple conflicts of interests inherent in the House Ethics Committee process.
We do not file this Complaint lightly or without supporting documentation. 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.
SCPC’s ethics complaint against Speaker Bobby Harrell
- State the clear, detailed facts upon which you base your complaint against the above—named respondent. (If additional space is needed, attach supplemental sheets.)
The South Carolina Policy Council (“SCPC”) – along with multiple citizens, organizations and South Carolina journalists – has publicly raised serious, valid and documented concerns that the Speaker of the House Robert Harrell, Jr. has engaged and may continue to engage in an ongoing pattern of abuse of power that appears to violate multiple South Carolina ethics laws. SCPC believes that such violations rise to the level of public corruption, as has been, unfortunately, the case in previous matters involving SC public officials.
An investigation by the appropriate public officials, in this case, the Attorney General, is not only warranted but necessary to protect SC citizens from the dire consequences of a corrupt government – consequences that the SC Ethics Laws are expressly designed to prevent. To avoid any allegations of whitewashing, the appearance of partiality or bias, or undue influence, the House Ethics Committee should immediately refer this Complaint to the Attorney General.
SCPC submits the following: