House Members Stand by Embattled Speaker

April 14, 2014

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

LoveIt appears that arguably the most powerful lawmaker in the S.C. General Assembly would hold his title if his colleagues voted today.

Nine House members, both Republicans and Democrats, who were interviewed Friday by The Nerve said that for now, they would vote to re-elect House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, as the leader of the 124-member chamber.

The chamber’s organizational meeting is at least seven months away, but House members contacted byThe Nerve confirmed that Harrell, who has been the speaker since 2005, has been asking House members in recent weeks for their support of his speakership, though they contended the timing isn’t unusual.

Harrell, who was elected to the House in 1992, is under investigation by the state grand jury, a division of the Attorney General’s Office, for possible violations of state ethics laws, though he is fighting a legal battle to remove Attorney General Alan Wilson from his case.

In February 2013, the South Carolina Policy Council – the parent organization of The Nerve, filed an ethics complaint with Wilson, asking him to investigate, among other things, whether Harrell’s reimbursement from his campaign account for his private plane use violated state ethics laws.

Harrell has denied publicly doing anything wrong, and he has not been charged with any criminal or administrative violations.

“I’m sticking with Bobby, and I think most people will stick with Bobby because he has been good to us,” said Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, when contacted Friday by The Nerve.

But at least one grassroots leader isn’t sticking with Harrell.

“There are a lot of things we can’t get done with Harrell as speaker,” said Talbert Black, state coordinator of S.C. Campaign for Liberty and founder of the Palmetto Liberty Political Action Committee, when contacted Friday by The Nerve.

In a Tweet (@PL_PAC) this morning, Black called on Palmetto Liberty followers to contact their House members and “insist that he or she demand Harrell resign as Speaker of the House immediately!”

“Corruption poisons Columbia, and you’re paying for it!” Black wrote.

Among other things, Black noted Harrell’s campaign efforts in the February re-election of S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, contending that it was “no secret that Harrell threatened to blackball House members who didn’t vote for Toal.” The Nerve in February reported that Toal would have the authority to appoint the trial judge in Harrell’s ethics case if he is indicted by the state grand jury.

Black also cited last week’s filing of legislation, which, as The Nerve reported, would allow the General Assembly to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the attorney general and other state constitutional officers for ethics violations, and would remove the attorney general as the state’s chief prosecutor. A House member who asked not to be identified told The Nerve then that a number of his colleagues believe Harrell was behind the legislation.

Most House members contacted Friday by The Nerve said their support of Harrell for the speakership is not affected by the ongoing state grand jury investigation of Harrell.

“He’s presumed innocent,” said Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter and a member of the House Ethics Committee.

The Nerve reported earlier this month that Richland County Circuit Judge Casey Manning, who is the administrative judge of the state grand jury in Harrell’s case, will consider whether to transfer the case to the House Ethics Committee, which doesn’t handle criminal matters, though a hearing has not been held on that question.

Smith, an attorney said that “it’s customary around this time of year” for the House speaker and other officers of the House, including the speaker pro tempore – currently Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington – and the sergeant at arms – currently Mitch Dorman – to approach members asking for their support at the chamber’s organizational meeting, which will be held after the general election in November.

Asked why he supports Harrell as speaker, Smith replied, “I think he’s done a good job, and he’s the only one running.”

Lowe, who was a member of the House Ethics Committee during Gov. Nikki Haley’s ethics case in 2012, said, “I like Bobby; I trust Bobby, and the same is true for Nikki.”

Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, said Harrell, who as speaker wields appointment power over House committees, has been “very, very fair with assignments to committees from the Beaufort area,” adding, “He’s got an open-office policy.”

Contacted Friday, Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, said while “I can’t speak for everybody, I think the majority of the (House Republican) caucus would support him.”

“He does a fantastic job administratively,” Goldfinch said. “He collectively gets people to come to a consensus, which is hard to do in the House.”

Goldfinch, an attorney, is facing a federal charge of “misbranded drugs” in Texas in connection with the harvesting of stem cells that later were sold to a Texas man posing as a U.S. doctor. He told The Nerve in December that he planned to plead guilty, though he stressed he didn’t have any intent to commit a crime, and that he was unaware of the alleged illegal activities of a co-defendant who was working under contract with his former company.

Goldfinch also said given the nature of his charge, which carries a maximum one-year federal prison sentence and a $100,000 fine, he didn’t expect to face any disciplinary action in the House. Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington and the House Ethics Committee chairman, told The Nerve then that Goldfinch’s case likely didn’t fall under the committee’s jurisdiction, and that it  would be up to Harrell to determine whether there would be any disciplinary action.

House Democrats contacted Friday by The Nerve were equally as supportive of Harrell as speaker.

“He’s demonstrated being a speaker for the House and not a speaker for the party,” said Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland and chairman of the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee. “The budget deliberations are not as brutal and not as long, and I think that is one huge accomplishment.”

Said Rep. David Mack, D-Charleston, “From my standpoint as a minority within a minority (party), he’s reached out and been fair as far as I’m concerned.”

Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Newberry and an attorney, said he supports Harrell as speaker because “I don’t have any reason to vote against him,” adding that as far as Harrell’s ethics case is concerned, “I hate to say the jury’s out, but it’s still an open question.”

Contacted Friday, Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, said he gave Harrell a qualified “yes” when asked if he would support him as speaker.

“I told him I was pretty sure I probably would, and he said he didn’t need ‘pretty sure,’” Chumley recalled. “I did tell him if everything is the same as it is now, I will support him.”

Asked if he would continue to support Harrell if the speaker were indicted, Chumley replied, “If things get serious or there was a problem, that would change things.”

Chumley faced a House Ethic Committee hearing in December, as reported by The Nerve, accused of possibly violating state ethics law by using a state plane to fly in an economics expert to testify at a legislative hearing on a bill sponsored by Chumley aimed at preventing the implementation of “Obamacare” in South Carolina. Chumley denied breaking any laws, and the committee voted unanimously to dismiss its complaint.

Asked Friday if he is supporting Harrell as speaker, Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, replied: “I gave the answer most of the members gave. … The sitting speaker is the person who governs the body, and it’s awfully hard to go against that.”

Huggins pointed out he has disagreed with Harrell at times, noting that most recently, he voted for Toal’s opponent in the election for the chief justice’s seat. Still, he acknowledged he usually doesn’t go against Harrell’s wishes.

“When the king has a guillotine to your neck, it’s kind of hard to go against the king,” he joked.

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