SLED won’t release investigative file on former S.C. House speaker

October 31, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

In requesting this month’s public release of a state grand jury report into legislative corruption, special prosecutor David Pascoe wrote that he “firmly believes that the greatest weapon against corruption and incompetence in government is transparency.”

Yet the State Law Enforcement Division, which assisted Pascoe, declined multiple open-records requests this year by The Nerve to release its investigative file on former House Speaker Bobby Harrell – arguably the most powerful lawmaker before his guilty plea to ethics violations in October 2014, and whose criminal case sparked the state grand jury investigation into other indicted lawmakers.

Harrell, a Charleston County Republican who had been the House speaker since 2005 and was first elected to the House in 1992, resigned from office and was sentenced to three years’ probation after pleading guilty to six misdemeanor counts of using campaign funds to reimburse himself for expenses related to his private airplane.

The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, in February 2013 filed a formal ethics complaint against Harrell with the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, which referred it to SLED for investigation.

The complaint dealt in part with Harrell’s private-plane use, though it also called for an investigation, citing documents obtained by the Policy Council and The Nerve, into other matters, including Harrell’s:

  • Dealings with the state Board of Pharmacy on various matters involving his pharmaceutical business;
  • Appointment of his brother, John Harrell, to the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which nominates judicial candidates for election in the Legislature; and
  • Record keeping of campaign expenditures and reimbursements.

In addition, Ashley Landess, the Policy Council president, raised concerns to SLED about Harrell’s connection to the Palmetto Leadership Council, a legislative political action committee.

In an Oct. 24 letter, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said after discussing The Nerve’s latest request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act with the “appropriate South Carolina State Grand Jury prosecutorial authority” – confirmed by Berry as Pascoe – SLED determined that the Harrell records were “confidential South Carolina State Grand Jury records that are not public records as defined” by state law.

“It is noteworthy that only a court can order the production of State Grand jury materials, as was done recently by the State Grand Jury judge; however, the materials responsive to this request are not covered by that recent order (releasing the state grand jury report) and cannot be produced in conjunction therewith,” Berry wrote.

The Nerve had pointed out earlier to Berry that Harrell was indicted by a Richland County grand jury, not the state grand jury. The state grand jury report publicly released earlier this month by Circuit Judge Clifton Newman, the presiding judge of the state grand jury, included exhibits of testimony and other evidence presented to grand jurors – which normally are kept secret from the public – though it didn’t focus on the Policy Council’s complaint against Harrell.

Pascoe, the 1st Circuit solicitor for Orangeburg, Calhoun and Dorchester counties, did not return phone calls on Tuesday and earlier this month from The Nerve seeking comment on the Harrell file. He was appointed to the case in July 2014 after state Attorney General Alan Wilson recused himself.

The Nerve submitted FOIA requests to SLED for the Harrell file on Feb. 18, March 26, Aug. 15 and Sept. 7 of this year. In each request, The Nerve pointed out that Harrell was “no longer on probation and thus no longer under any legal requirement per his plea agreement to cooperate with authorities during his probationary period, so any SLED files regarding his case should have been closed at the end of his probationary period.”

The requests were narrowly tailored to records pertaining only to Harrell and not to any other lawmakers who might have been under investigation. In its first three responses declining the requests, SLED said it “has an active and ongoing investigation into this matter at this time,” and that releasing the requested records would “interfere with SLED’s prospective law enforcement proceeding in this matter.”

SLED initially approved The Nerve’s Sept. 7 request, which cited Pascoe’s motion seeking the release of the state grand jury report, but eventually furnished only a redacted version of a summary investigative report on the Harrell case that was first provided to media outlets, including The Nerve, in November 2014.

After The Nerve renewed its request for the entire Harrell file, Berry said he would have to discuss the matter with Pascoe, though he verbally told The Nerve on Oct. 16 that “we will get it for you.”

Two days later, however, Berry verbally informed The Nerve that the file would not be publicly released, adding SLED’s reasons would be detailed in a formal letter.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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