Circling the Wagons

March 20, 2014

Inside Insight

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

ariail wagons

WHEN WILL THE HOUSE STOP DEFENDING THE SPEAKER?

It’s bad enough that the most powerful elected official in this state isn’t directly accountable to the public, but we should at least be able to count on the justice system to work as it’s designed to. But nothing about the process of holding House Speaker Bobby Harrell accountable has been simple. If it were not for public pressure, it’s unlikely that he would even be forced to answer charges of public corruption.

The concerns we raised in our complaint should have been answered long before now. Vigilance is one thing, but a few citizen leaders and some journalists have had to work overtime to get the state’s most powerful politician to account for his conduct – and that is a dangerous situation for this state. The allegations against Harrell were public before we at SCPC filed our complaint, and had been for months. But rather than address them, the Speaker lashed out and did all he could to manipulate the process in his favor – all while the members of the South Carolina House who put him charge have remained publicly silent.

We can only hope that the judge overseeing the grand jury won’t close the door and secretly decide on Harrell’s absurd request to remove the Attorney General from the case. It’s the AG’s job to oversee this matter, he was elected to do it, and he is arguably the person least likely to be under Harrell’s control since he is directly accountable to the public. As Rick Brundrett reported, there appears to be no stated process by which a hearing such as this could take place in private. And as others have pointed out, there is no apparent way that Wilson could prejudice the Speaker’s case unless he committed gross prosecutorial misconduct. Not only is there is absolutely zero evidence that Wilson has done anything remotely improper, his approach to this matter from the beginning was to go so strictly by the book that he initially refused to take it on until it had gone through the House Ethics Committee. It was only when we presented the inherent due process problems that could not have been resolved had the Committee investigate the Speaker that Wilson agreed to take the complaint.

This farce has gone on far too long. It has been more than a year since we filed the complaint, and longer still since Renee Dudley at the Post and Courier broke the first story on Harrell’s reimbursements from his campaign account that exceeded $300,000. The justice system has to work at its own pace, but that does not mean that we don’t deserve answers when the Speaker continues to oversee multiple functions of state government well beyond the mere proceedings of the House.

Two sitting governors have been dragged through the press and the South Carolina House for alleged ethics violations, and yet Harrell goes unchallenged by those who elected him.

Members of the House of Representatives have repeatedly put Harrell in charge, and it’s time they stood up for the people and demand some answers.  For example, the Speaker’s brother still sits on the panel that chooses judicial candidates for legislative vote even though it seems clearly against the law for Harrell to have appointed him. That matter should be addressed and handled by House members separate and apart from Harrell’s culpability in a potentially illegal appointment.

Instead of pushing Harrell to let the justice system work as it is intended to, some House members are still trying to pass laws to get him off the hook, including introducing a bill that would let politicians to simply pay back money they illegally spent from their campaign accounts with no threat of civil or criminal penalties.

House members have been silent on the matter of their elected Speaker’s leadership for too long. Any SC Speaker of the House has far too much power regardless of whether or not he abuses it. This Speaker has abused that power to an alarming degree, and every House member has to answer for that. We can only trust the judicial system (under our watchful eye) to hold Harrell to the law. But he still has extraordinary power in this state, and at the very least House members need to reassure the public that they intend to hold him accountable for it going forward. They are responsible for Speaker Harrell, and citizens should remind them of that and hold them accountable for his actions.