Government Watchdog Group Wants A.G., Not House Panel, to Investigate Harrell

January 10, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Bobby HarrellThe head of a government watchdog organization says he plans to ask the S.C. House Ethics Committee to give the state’s top prosecutor first crack at investigating House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s campaign reimbursements over the past several years.

In an interview Tuesday with The Nerve, John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina, said his organization’s board of directors last weekend authorized him to send a letter to the House Ethics Committee asking the 10-member panel to “waive jurisdiction” in Harrell’s case and transfer it to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.

“We want an investigation of the use of his campaign money,” said Crangle, an attorney. “We think there are serious questions about the use of his campaign money.”

“We feel the House Ethics Committee cannot ethically and thoroughly investigate this issue,” he added.

It’s not known, however, whether the ethics committee has been formally asked by anyone to investigate Harrell, R-Charleston.

Contacted Tuesday, Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington and the committee chairman, told The Nerve in a written response that he could not comment on whether any complaints have been filed.

“(O)n specific matters, I hope you understand it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any matter before the committee,” said Bingham, the immediate past House majority leader. “In fact, to do so would be a violation of state law. Also, in my opinion, it would violate the spirit of the law to discuss hypothetical matters or issues or individuals who may come before the committee at some future date.”

Harrell has been under fire since The (Charleston) Post and Courier in September reported that Harrell, a licensed pilot, reimbursed himself more than $325,000 from his campaign account since 2008, much of which he said was used to cover the costs of flying his private plane to political and legislative events.

The Nerve in October reported that Harrell was reimbursed for flying his private plane and driving during recent legislative sessions, raising questions about his travel patterns.

Harrell said he returned about $23,000 to his campaign account, according to an Associated Press story. Harrell, who was easily re-elected House speaker last month, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing; and he has not been charged with any criminal or administrative violations.

In October, Crangle along with the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – and other organizations representing the state’s political spectrum publicly called on S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson to conduct a criminal investigation of Harrell.

Wilson, the state’s top prosecutor, repeatedly has said the House Ethics Committee should first investigate Harrell’s campaign reimbursements, though there is no law preventing Wilson’s office from immediately taking the lead role.

“Should the House Ethics Committee not act, this Office is then prepared to do what is in the public’s best interest,” Wilson said in a prepared statement issued in October, though he didn’t specify what he meant by the “public’s best interest.”

Unlike other House committees whose members are appointed by Harrell, ethics committee members are selected by the entire chamber. In the wake of last year’s ethics probe of Gov. Nikki Haley’s employment when she was a House member, the House during an organizational last month voted to increase the size of the ethics committee from six to 10, replacing most of the previous members and dividing the panel equally among Republicans and Democrats.

Crangle said he wrote a similar letter last year to then-Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, requesting that the committee waive jurisdiction in Harrell’s case. Smith, who no longer is on the committee, replied in writing that he had received the letter but didn’t specifically address the request, Crangle said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.