House Speaker Reveals Little about ‘Legislative’ Expenses

April 23, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Bobby HarrellSince January 2011, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell has used $150,000 in campaign funds for various expenses that he has labeled in campaign disclosure reports as “legislative,” a review by The Nerve found.

But none of the 142 entries over the 39-month period, which includes the first three months of this year, gives specifics about the purpose of the expenditure – nor is it a general requirement under state ethics law.

Harrell, R-Charleston and the House speaker since 2005, has contended that using campaign funds for expenses related to his office saves taxpayer dollars. But given the lack of specific reporting requirements, it also prevents the public from knowing what exactly Harrell is doing on public time.

“This has been used to camouflage his activities,” John Crangle, attorney-director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, said when contacted Tuesday by The Nerve. “There’s no specificity of what the money is being used for, so the purpose of the disclosure statute is not being fulfilled.”

Although state lawmakers report their campaign contributions and expenditures to the State Ethics Commission, it doesn’t have the authority to investigate or sanction legislators for ethics violations. That falls by law to either the House or Senate Ethics committees.

Asked whether the State Ethics Commission requires other elected officials under its jurisdiction to report specifics of how they use campaign funds to cover expenses related to their office, Cathy Hazelwood, the commission’s chief lawyer and deputy director, gave the following written response this week to The Nerve:

“We do not require a more detailed description unless there is a question that comes up from the public or press that makes us think we need one. We do not examine every form filed or every expenditure. The system flags certain expenditure descriptive words and then we review the flagged report following each filing period.”

“‘Office expense’ seems vague, but we accept (it),” Hazelwood also said, noting that candidates for office must keep receipts and invoices for four years.

A January 2013 report by a special ethics-reform study committee appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley did not address the issue of using campaign funds for official-duty expenses.

‘Legislative Flowers’

The Nerve’s review of Harrell’s campaign-expenditure reports found that of the $150,122 spent by the speaker on “legislative” expenses from Jan. 1, 2011, through March 31:

  • $59,955 was labeled as “legislative” travel for Harrell and others, including Harrell spokesman Greg Foster, who makes $87,550 a year, according to a state salary database maintained by The State newspaper. Harrell recorded $46,048 in “legislative” travel for himself, including two payments covered with campaign funds totaling $29,276.
  • $48,142 was for “legislative printing”;
  • $24,387 was listed as “legislative” meals, many of which were at the private, upscale Palmetto Club, located within walking distance of the State House;
  • $7,129 was reported in the category labeled “legislative flowers”; and
  • $2,132 was listed on Jan. 2 of this year as “legislative fundraising.”

Harrell, who was elected to the House in 1992, did not respond Tuesday to a phone message from The Nerve seeking comment. He is under investigation by the state grand jury, a division of the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, for possible violations of state ethics laws, though he has denied any wrongdoing, and he has not been charged with any criminal or administrative violations.

Contacted Tuesday, one of Harrell’s attorneys, Gedney Howe of Charleston, said he was informed by Charleston lawyer Bart Daniel, who also is representing Harrell, that a court hearing on their client’s state grand jury case was scheduled for next Wednesday in Columbia before Circuit Judge Casey Manning. But when told that the state grand jury clerk’s office hadn’t publicly announced a hearing date, Howe referred further questions to Daniel, who didn’t respond to a phone message from The Nerve.

Howe hung up as a Nerve reporter began asking questions about Harrell’s “legislative” expenses.

In a written reply Tuesday morning to The Nerve, Mark Powell, spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson, said his office had not been notified of a court hearing date, referring questions to James Parks, the state grand jury clerk.

The Nerve reported earlier this month, citing Howe, that Manning is considering whether to transfer Harrell’s case to the House Ethics Committee, which, by law, can police only non-criminal ethics violations by House members. The committee is required to refer any alleged criminal ethics violations to the attorney general.

In an initial court hearing on March 21 before Manning, Brad Wright, an attorney and Harrell’s chief of staff, testified he felt threatened by Wilson in a closed-door meeting last April at the Attorney General’s Office during a discussion about a legislative proposal supported by Wilson. Wilson in his testimony denied he threatened Wright.

Though a month has passed since the hearing, Manning has issued no ruling and has not released any of the court documents cited during the hearing or motions for the upcoming hearing, despite repeated requests by The Nerve.

The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, in February 2013 filed an ethics complaint against Harrell, asking Wilson to investigate whether the speaker violated various state ethics laws. Wilson referred the complaint to the State Law Enforcement Division; after a 10-month investigation, SLED turned its report over to Wilson’s office, which announced in January that it had been referred to the state grand jury.

Among other things, the Policy Council asked Wilson to investigate whether Harrell broke state ethics law in connection with campaign-account reimbursements for use of his private plane. The (Charleston) Post and Courier in September 2012 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 cost of flying his private plane to political and legislative events.

Harrell later said he returned about $23,000 to his campaign account, according to an Associated Press story.

Attorney-Client Privilege?

In a related matter, The Nerve in January submitted a request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act to the House Ethics Committee asking for copies of any formal or informal opinions issued by the committee or committee staff relating to Harrell’s private-plane use.

After an initial denial of the request, The Nerve submitted a follow-up FOIA request asking House Clerk Charles Reid, an attorney who handles FOIA requests on behalf of the House, to provide redacted versions of any informal opinions and related documents as evidence that the Ethics Committee had considered the matter. In his initial reply, Reid said there were no formal opinions on the issue, though he seemed to suggest the existence of an informal opinion.

Reid last month denied The Nerve’s follow-up request, citing the same two FOIA exemptions as he had claimed in his first response: the legislative exemption, which allows lawmakers to keep secret  their “(m)emoranda, correspondence, and working papers”; and another section of the law dealing with attorney-client privilege.

That section (Section 30-4-40(a)(7) of the S.C. Code of Laws) says “(c)orrespondence or work products of legal counsel for a public body and any other material that would violate attorney client relationships” may be kept secret by a public body.

Contacted this week by The Nerve, Jay Bender, the attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, questioned whether the Ethics Committee could claim that exemption, noting the committee would be in the position of investigating Harrell if Manning decides to transfer the case from the state grand jury.

“The attorney-client argument seems specious at best and corrupt at worst,” Bender said. “It implies … that this committee is saying it is the attorney for Bobby Harrell.”

The Nerve, through the Policy Council, is an associate member of the Press Association.

Crangle, of Common Cause, echoed Bender’s concerns.

“If you had a criminal defense lawyer and at the same time he could sit on the bench and decide your case, then there would be no homicide convictions,” Crangle said.

The Nerve on Tuesday sent written questions to Reid seeking clarification of his earlier FOIA responses but received no reply.

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