Harrell Reimbursed Himself $70,000 for Unidentified Staff Expenses

May 5, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Bobby HarrellBobby Harrell’s reimbursement from his campaign account for use of his private plane wasn’t the only questionable payment to himself in recent years, a review by The Nervehas found.

An analysis by The Nerve of the Charleston Republican’s campaign-expenditure forms filed with the State Ethics Commission covering 2008 through March of this year found that in 2012, Harrell reimbursed himself a total of $70,283 for what appears to be wages paid to an unidentified administrative assistant and other unknown staff for unspecified services.

Harrell, the House speaker since 2005, made eight payments for that purpose to himself, mostly in monthly amounts of $3,976. His single-largest reimbursement was $36,733 on Feb. 10, 2012, for “administrative & clerical staff,” followed by another individual reimbursement of $11,930 on April 20, 2012, for an “admin assistant,” records show.

Given the listed amounts of the reimbursements, the payments to Harrell likely were for staff wages or salaries, though no specifics are listed on his campaign expenditure forms. Those forms list the names and addresses of other vendors paid with campaign funds.

The Nerve’s review of Harrell’s reported campaign expenses for the period also found that he reimbursed himself another collective $26,273 mainly for unspecified phone and other “communications” expenses, as well as for other expenditures, including, for example, $1,775 for what was described only a “staff Christmas.”

For his reimbursements, Harrell listed his address as 2000 Sam Rittenberg Blvd., Suite 124, Charleston – the same address listed for his insurance agency, known as the Robert Harrell Insurance Agency.

Following The Nerve’s and other media reports of Harrell’s reimbursements for the use of his private plane, Harrell listed no campaign-account reimbursements to himself for all of last year or the first three months of this year, records show. He has declined multiple media requests to provide copies of receipts or other records verifying his campaign expenditures in earlier years.

The Nerve in October 2012 reported that from Jan. 1, 2008, through Oct. 10, 2012, Harrell reimbursed himself from his campaign account a total of $234,171 for legislative and other trips. No details were specified in virtually all of those 40 payments, including nine payments of at least $10,000 each.

The Nerve’s review then of flight logs showed that Harrell flew his single-engine Cirrus SR22 plane nearly 43,000 miles over the period, including round-trips between Columbia and Charleston during legislative session weeks, and that he also received taxpayer-funded, car-mileage payments for some session weeks during which he flew his plane. He told The (Charleston) Post and Courier in 2012 that much of his reimbursements from his campaign account covered the use of his plane for legislative and political trips.

State law (Section 8-13-1348 of the S.C. Code of Laws) allows campaign funds to be used for “reasonable and necessary travel expenses,” and that those funds cannot be “converted to personal use.” Another law (Section 8-13-1360) requires candidates to itemize reimbursements “so that the purpose and recipient of the expenditure are identified.”

Contacted Friday by The Nerve, Cathy Hazelwood, chief lawyer and deputy director at the State Ethics Commission, said two sections of state law (Section 8-13-1314 dealing with campaign contributions by candidates to themselves and Section 8-13-1328 providing for repayments of loans by candidates to themselves), as “interpreted” by the commission, “provide for reimbursement to candidates for their payments of campaign expenses from personal accounts.”

“All expenditures are supposed to be paid from the campaign account, but there are too many times that the candidate picks up something and doesn’t have the campaign check book, etc,” Hazelwood said in a written response, adding, “Reimbursements are common.”

When asked, though, about the practice of candidates reimbursing themselves for payment of campaign staff wages or salaries, Hazelwood replied, “I don’t know of any candidate within our jurisdiction being reimbursed for staff wages/salaries.”

The State Ethics Commission doesn’t police members of the S.C. General Assembly for ethics violations. That falls under state law to the House and Senate Ethics committees.

In a court hearing Friday in Columbia before Circuit Judge Casey Manning – the administrative judge of the state grand jury in Harrell’s case – Bart Daniel, one of Harrell’s attorneys, asked Manning to transfer his client’s case to the House Ethics Committee, as initially reported by The Nerve on April 4. The state grand jury can issue criminal indictments in public corruption cases; in contrast, the two legislative ethics committees can issue only civil sanctions for ethics violations.

In a repeat of Harrell’s initial hearing on March 21, Manning made no ruling following Friday’s hearing, announcing at the end, “I’m in no hurry to make a decision.”

Manning has not publicly released any documents – motions, replies to motions and related affidavits – related to either hearing, despite repeated written requests by The Nerve through the state grand jury clerk’s office.

Immediately following Friday’s hearing (covered by The Nerve via Twitter account @thenerve_rick), aNerve reporter asked Manning in person to release those documents, which normally are readily accessible in many court cases. Manning replied that the records would be released through the state grand jury clerk in “due course,” though he gave no specific date.

As in the March hearing, Harrell was present for Friday’s hearing but did not make any in-court statements. Afterward, he told reporters, “What we just saw was a campaign speech by the attorney general.”

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson told Manning during the hearing that his office has jurisdiction in public corruption cases, and noted the public corruption allegations made against Harrell in a complaint filed in February 2013 with his office by Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council,The Nerve’s parent organization.

Harrell has repeatedly denied doing anything wrong, and he has not been charged with any crimes.

The Nerve on Sunday left a phone message with Harrell seeking comment on today’s story but received no response.

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