Harrell Pays Probation Agency with Campaign Funds

June 29, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Bobby HarrellEight days after pleading guilty to misspending $93,958 from his campaign account, ex-S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell paid $3,517 from the account to the state probation department, campaign records show – money which the agency says was credited toward his court-ordered restitution.

Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon (PPP) Services, said last week when contacted by The Nerve that the agency wasn’t aware of the “original source of the funds” with the Oct. 31 payment. He initially suggested the department wasn’t going to look into the matter.

“Like I said, we can’t investigate the source of funds for the thousands of people we have on probation who are paying restitution, not to mention almost all of the 32,000 people we have on some form of supervision who have to pay supervision fees even if they don’t owe restitution,” O’Boyle said in an email response Thursday to The Nerve.

“The check he (Harrell) gave us was a cashier’s check,” he added. “It said nothing about being from his campaign account.”

But after The Nerve pointed out in a follow-up email that Harrell’s campaign records were online and could easily be checked by his agency, and asked specifically whether the department would investigate the matter, O’Boyle gave a different response.

“This matter has been referred to the director,” O’Boyle said. “He will make a decision on what action to take.”

The Nerve received no response from PPP Director Jerry Adger, an appointee of Gov. Nikki Haley, by publication of this story.

As of June 9, Harrell, who runs an insurance agency, had paid a total of $16,250.01, including the $3,517.01 payment on Oct. 31, toward his court-ordered $93,958 restitution, plus $4,074.08 toward court fines totaling $30,297.48, O’Boyle said in his written response. O’Boyle said the court fines are paid to the Richland County Clerk of Court’s Office; a court worker told The Nerve last week she didn’t know the source of Harrell’s fine payments.

The Nerve earlier this month reported that although Harrell agreed to be an informant for state and federal authorities as part of his plea deal, no one else has been criminally charged based on information he might have provided to authorities.

Neither Harrell, a Charleston Republican who arguably was the state’s most powerful lawmaker at one time, nor Charleston attorney Bart Daniel, who represented Harrell in his criminal case, responded to several detailed phone and email messages from The Nerve seeking comment on Harrell’s payments to PPP. First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe of Orangeburg, the special prosecutor assigned to his case, also didn’t respond to recent phone and written messages from The Nerve.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Mark Powell, spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who transferred Harrell’s case last summer to Pascoe, referred questions about Harrell’s restitution payments to PPP.

As part of his Oct. 23 plea deal, Harrell agreed in writing to:

  • Forfeit the “entirety of his campaign account to the State of South Carolina’s General Fund”;
  • Pay an additional $93,958 to the general fund, which would be considered “reimbursement to his campaign account”;
  • Resign his House seat “immediately following his guilty plea”; and
  • Not “seek or hold public office for a three-year period from the date of his guilty plea.”

The plea agreement, which was signed by Daniel and Pascoe, also called for a six-year prison sentence suspended to three years’ probation and a $30,000 fine. Richland County Circuit Judge Casey Manning sentenced Harrell under those terms on Oct. 23; Harrell formally submitted his resignation the next day.

The plea deal specifies no deadlines to make the approximately $124,000 in total restitution and fine payments.

Questions Raised

Contacted last week, John Crangle, attorney-director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, told The Nerve he believes the plea deal prevents Harrell from spending any campaign money toward the $93,958 owed to the state’s general fund. Instead, the $3,715 payment to PPP should have been designated, as required by the agreement, as part of Harrell’s forfeiture of his campaign account to the general fund, and that the $93,958 should be reimbursed separately with non-campaign funds, he said.

“At that point in time when he entered his guilty plea, the terms immediately took effect,” Crangle said. “Any money in his campaign account at that point belonged to the state of South Carolina. There’s nothing left to spend.”

Harrell’s last campaign report, filed on Jan. 7 with the State Ethics Commission, shows a zero account balance after he spent, following his Oct. 23 guilty plea, the remaining $4,298.91 in the account, including his $3,517.01 payment on Oct. 31 to PPP. That payment is reported as an unspecified “Fee” to the “State of SC”; the vendor address is listed only as PPP’s post-office box mailing address.

Asked about the forfeiture requirement in Harrell’s plea deal, O’Boyle replied: “I don’t know about the balance of his campaign account forfeited to the general fund. I think that would have had to have been ordered by the judge at sentencing.”

State ethics law (Section 8-13-1348(A) of the S.C. Code of Laws) says campaign funds can’t be used to “defray personal expenses which are unrelated to the campaign or office.” Harrell pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts of using campaign funds for personal expenses under that section of law.

Asked by The Nerve last week whether officials convicted of state ethics violations could use their campaign accounts to pay court-ordered restitution and court fines, Herb Hayden, the State Ethics Commission’s executive director, said in a written response, “While the State Ethics Commission has never issued a published opinion on this subject, it is and has been the staff’s opinion that such expenses are personal.”

Hayden said campaign funds can’t be used to pay restitution or fines in criminal cases not involving ethics or campaign finance violations.

The Nerve did not ask Hayden for an opinion on Harrell’s case. The Ethics Commission has no jurisdiction over lawmakers; that falls to the House and Senate Ethics committees.

‘Privileged Information’

The Nerve initially asked O’Boyle the source of all payments to PPP by Harrell, how many times Harrell has met with his probation officer, and whether he has incurred any probation violations.

O’Boyle declined to answer any of those questions, citing in his written response department “Policy 1404” and a state law (Section 24-21-290 of the S.C. Code of Laws) that reads in part, “All information and data obtained in the discharge of his official duty by a probation agent is privileged information.”

Given that Harrell was ordered to pay $93,958 to the state’s general fund, The Nerve recently asked the S.C. Treasurer’s Office if it knew the source of Harrell’s to-date payments. Agency spokesman Scott Lindenberg said his office received those payments from PPP, adding, “Essentially, we don’t know the originating account.”

Harrell, who had been the House speaker since 2005 and was first elected to the House in 1992, pleaded guilty to four separate counts to reimbursing himself from his campaign account for four “non-existent” trips in his private plane between Charleston and Columbia in 2009. He also pleaded guilty to reimbursing himself from his campaign account for a private plane trip to a high school baseball tournament in Florida in 2009.

Harrell, a licensed pilot, also admitted to a sixth count of unlawfully reimbursing himself a total of $93,958 from his campaign account between Jan. 1, 2009, and Jan. 10, 2013, in connection with private-plane expenses that were “neither related to his campaign nor his office in the House of Representatives,” according to one of the Richland County indictments. That was the amount Harrell was ordered, per his plea deal, to pay to the state’s general fund.

As part of the plea deal, four other charges against Harrell – two counts of misconduct in office, one count of using campaign funds for personal expenses, and one count of false reporting – will be dismissed after three years from the date of his guilty plea, provided that he has “fully complied with all of the terms of this agreement.” The most serious charge – common-law misconduct in office – carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

Harrell’s plea and resignation stemmed from a public corruption complaint filed in February 2013 by the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – with Attorney General Wilson.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.