Sounds of Silence on Possible Harrell Investigation

January 31, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Tape over MouthOver the four-plus months of media reports raising questions about potential ethical violations involving S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, there’s been a distinct sound among state government officials tasked with investigating those types of allegations:

Crickets chirping.

No one – neither members of the state House Ethics Committee nor S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson – has publicly committed to an investigation of Harrell. Whether they will do so is anybody’s guess.

Experts on ethics outside the Palmetto State weren’t surprised when contacted this week by The Nerve.

“It’s a problem how long these investigations take with very simple fact patterns,” said Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who served as former President George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer from February 2005 to July 2007. “I think these things take way too long.”

“It’s bad for morale in government; it’s bad for public perception,” Painter said.

Edwin Bender, executive director of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, said state agencies across the nation that investigate ethics violations by government officials “just don’t have the time, money or staff to do a lot of enforcement, so they tend to be selective in what they take.”

Bender said although he couldn’t comment on specifics in Harrell’s case, based on the types of allegations made against the speaker, “I think it would take a pretty big complaint (for a state agency or body to investigate), and I think this fits in that category.”

“Once you pursue it,” he added, “it can often take a year or two for a complaint to go through the process and come out with a ruling.”

In general, Bender said, “taking a lawmaker down while in power is a really hard thing to do.”

That’s often true in states, such as South Carolina, where lawmakers police themselves through their own ethics committees, said Kathleen Clark, a University of Washington in St. Louis law professor who teaches about government ethics and serves on the Washington, D.C. Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct Review Committee.

In South Carolina, the House and Senate police themselves through their respective ethics committees. The State Ethics Commission governs other public officials. On Monday, the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform recommended that the State Ethics Commission take over jurisdiction of lawmakers.

In addition, newly elected state Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, last week introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would take away lawmakers’ self-policing powers and transfer the investigative and disciplinary authority to the State Ethics Commission.

Clark said when lawmakers are allowed to police themselves, “that route leaves itself to abuse by powerful legislators who can make it difficult to do rigorous investigations.”

The U.S. House Committee on Ethics for years was accused of whitewashing ethics complaints against congressional members, but several years ago, an independent, nonpartisan entity known as the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was created to initially review misconduct allegations against House members, Clark said. If allegations are substantiated, they are referred to the House Committee on Ethics for a determination about whether to pursue formal ethics charges, she said.

The OCE’s governing board is made up of private citizens who cannot serve as congressional members or work for the federal government. In virtually all circumstances, OCE reports and findings are made public, according to its website.

“It’s been very effective in Congress,” Clark said.

In Chicago, the city’s Board of Ethics polices the three elected city government officers – mayor, clerk and treasurer – the 50 elected members of City Council, and roughly 31,000 city employees for ethical violations; while the city’s Office of Inspector General has jurisdiction in government mismanagement, waste and corruption cases involving the three elected city officers as well as city employees. City Council also has its own inspector general.

“I can tell you the legislative inspector general is a busy guy and the (other) inspector general is a busy guy,” said Steven Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics. “Somebody is always on trial for political corruption.”

But that’s not been the case in South Carolina – at least when it comes to state lawmakers. And the apparent lack of commitment to investigate Harrell’s case has frustrated state grassroots leaders.

“The people of South Carolina, the taxpayers, are Bobby’s employer, and we find his accountability lacking,” said Karen Martin, organizer of the Spartanburg Tea Party, when contacted Wednesday by The Nerve. “We would not be shielded from a proper investigation as ordinary citizens; his elected position, however, seems to hold him to a lesser standard of accountability, mostly because the legislators make the laws.

“No wonder South Carolina is known as the cesspool of politics. Our attorney general should cease his dithering on the issue and investigate Harrell.”

Last week, Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization, revealed that the Policy Council is considering filing a formal ethics complaint against Harrell with the House Ethics Committee.

Documents obtained by the Policy Council and The Nerve, which were referred to by Landess during the hearing, raise questions about Harrell’s:

  • Dealings with the state Board of Pharmacy on various matters involving his pharmaceutical business;
  • Reimbursement of campaign funds for certain expenses connected to the use of his private airplane, first reported in September by the (Charleston) Post and Courier; and
  • Appointment of his brother, John Harrell, to the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, a 10-member panel that nominates candidates for election by the state Legislature.

Harrell, the House speaker since 2005, has repeatedly denied he did anything wrong, and he has not been charged with any criminal or administrative violations. As has been their practice with The Nerve, neither the Charleston Republican nor his spokesman, Greg Foster, responded Wednesday to written and phone messages from a Nerve reporter.

“Why does it take an outside organization (such as the Policy Council) to bring up formal charges to get an ethics investigation in the state of South Carolina?” grassroots activist Brit Adams of Oconee County told The Nerve when contacted Wednesday.

“If I were stealing from the company I was working for,” Adams continued, “would it take an outsider to say something before the company would look into it? I think this is another way for S.C. legislators to protect themselves from the truth.”

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