No Movement On Harrell Investigation; Ethics Panel Gets Earful

November 9, 2012

Investigative Reports

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SC House ChamberThe state’s top prosecutor isn’t budging from his position that the S.C. House Ethics Committee should first investigate House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s campaign reimbursements over the past several years, the longtime leader of a state government watchdog group said Thursday.

But John Crangle, attorney-director of Common Cause of South Carolina, told The Nerve that S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson also indicated during a meeting Thursday afternoon with him and Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council, that if the House Ethics Committee “does not deal with it, he (Wilson) would deal with it.”

“The bottom line is that he felt that the House Ethics Committee should be allowed to go first to question Bobby Harrell because that would generate some factual information that they could use if they conduct an investigation,” Crangle said.

The South Carolina Policy Council is the parent organization of The Nerve. Landess, Crangle and leaders of other organizations representing the state’s political spectrum last month publicly called on Wilson’s office to conduct a criminal investigation of Harrell.

The Nerve last month reported that Harrell, a Charleston Republican, was reimbursed for flying his private plane and driving during recent legislative sessions, raising questions about his travel patterns.

The  Post and Courier reported in September that Harrell, a licensed pilot, offered no specifics to the Charleston newspaper regarding more than $325,000 he reimbursed himself 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.

Harrell said he returned about $23,000 to his campaign account, according to a later Associated Press story. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and he has not been charged with any criminal or administrative violations.

In another ethics matter, Wilson during Thursday’s meeting with Crangle and Landess said he intended to push for legislation when lawmakers return in January to “codify the functions” of his “Public Integrity Unit,” according to Crangle. Wilson and fellow Republican Gov. Nikki Haley announced the creation of the unit in August.

“He has no statutory authority” for the unit, Crangle said.

Wilson said in August the unit would be a partnership among his office, the State Law Enforcement Division, Department of Revenue, State Ethics Commission and Inspector General’s Office to investigate public corruption cases in South Carolina.

‘Perfectly Legal’ Corruption

Landess had plenty to say about corruption during a hearing Thursday morning called by a special House Republican panel tasked with proposing changes in state ethics laws.

“When you talk about corruption you immediately think about what’s illegal,” Landess said. “What we’re talking about here is corruption that’s perfectly legal.

“Power is concentrated in the hands of lawmakers who are able to control almost every function of government, effectively controlling all three branches of government; and they do so in a great deal of secrecy.”

Landess was among a group of speakers who voiced concerns about the state’s ethics laws and offered proposals to fix the problems. Besides the Policy Council and Common Cause, other groups represented during the hearing included the Attorney General’s Office, University of South Carolina’s School of Law and the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.

House Democrats held a separate ethics-reform hearing earlier.

Landess ran through a list of things she wanted to see changed in state government, including how judges are elected. South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states where their legislatures play a primary role in electing judges.

Reforming the Palmetto State’s judicial selection process was among an eight-point reform agenda released by the Policy Council in May.

“Judicial independence is critical to monitoring corruption,” Landess said during Thursday’s hearing. “That’s the independent branch that interprets the law. You already have a conflict of interest when you have the Legislature unilaterally appointing the judges who interpret their laws.”

Landess proposed that the governor should appoint judges, as is done in other states, adding, “No model is perfect, but that’s the one that affords the most opportunity for checks and balances.”

Regarding the governor’s role in general, Landess said the elected head of state should have more control over the state’s affairs.

“The job description for our governor today is recruiter, public relations professional, cheerleader, lobbyist, you name it,” she said. “But you know what it’s not? The chief executive officer of the state of South Carolina.”

The state’s weak open-records law also was a topic of discussion.

Obtaining documents under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act can cost hundreds of dollars, The Nerve reported in October.

Landess said those who make FOIA requests should not be charged labor costs for record searches, contending that such information should be free to the public.

“That’s deliberately designed, it appears to us, to keep people from getting information; and by the way, there’s no enforcement of freedom of information,” she said.

To Landess, the idea that the Legislature is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act makes no sense.

“Your constituent’s privacy might be affected if you are forced to release your correspondence?” Landess questioned. “And that’s exactly how you begin to create a structure of secrecy. FOIA laws are designed to allow the public to see everything and everyone.”

Toothless Unit?

During Thursday’s hearing, S.C. Deputy Attorney General Barry Bernstein pitched the Public Integrity Unit announced in August by his boss, though it’s unclear when the task force will begin operating.

Mark Powell, spokesman for the attorney general, couldn’t provide specifics when contacted Thursday byThe Nerve.

“It’s in the late stages of planning,” he said, though he added, “Not clear when it would come out.”

Asked if the unit would investigate Harrell’s case, Powell replied that he couldn’t speculate on that until after it was up and running.

Nevertheless, Crangle, of Common Cause, believes the Attorney General’s Office needs to investigate Harrell.

“It’s got to be the Attorney General,” he told The Nerve immediately after Thursday’s hearing. “That’s really beyond the capability of the House Ethics Committee.”

His position echoed Landess’ comments to the House GOP panel.

“When you have issues that are far beyond disclosure and you have a committee created by the House,” Landess said, “and you have your most powerful house member questioned publicly about campaign expenditures and no confidence that there will be an independent investigation…people don’t trust the fox to guard the hen house.”

Investigative reporter Rick Brundrett contributed to this story. Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or derek@thenerve.org.