Squid Pro Quo

April 17, 2014

Inside Insight

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Ariail Squid Pro Quo

ARE WE RULED BY LAWS, OR BY POLITICIANS?

It took us years to recognize how vast legislative leaders’ power has become in our state, but we’ve peeled back the layers to reveal tyranny that’s emerged over decades – even centuries. We knew we’d have a fight over it, and soon. History teaches over and over that the concentration of power and secrecy lead to corruption and tyranny. And yet we ignore it while it happens.

Make no mistake: in this state, right now, we are ruled by tyrants. There is no other way to explain how one politician who is not elected statewide could end up with such extraordinary control over all three branches of government. If anyone doubts the Speaker of the House has that, look at what’s unfolding in his public corruption case.

When the story broke that Bobby Harrell reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay expenses on his private airplane and claimed they were “ordinary expenses in connection with his office,” he should have been investigated. The Ethics Act uses the phrase “converting campaign funds to personal use” to describe what for the rest of us would be embezzlement.  The Ethics Act means either one of two things. Either it governs only minor, unintentional misuse of funds, leaving deliberate, large-scale “conversation” to the criminal justice system; or it allows politicians to commit major crimes and get away with it.

By making it clear that all criminal matters were to be handed over to the Attorney General – who has the constitutional authority to investigate any crime without permission from the Ethics Committee or anyone else – the drafters of the Act clearly intended that ethics violations involved technical infractions only.

That’s the way most everyone sees the Act – everyone, that is, outside the State House Complex. From the first report by Renee Dudley for the Post and Courier, it was clear this was no “oops.” The Speaker hid the nature of the expenses, calling it only “legislative travel” and paid himself instead of a vendor. Although all state business – including travel – is supposed to be transparent to the public, Harrell has still refused to publicly disclose the nature of the “legislative business.” He then claimed he’d “lost” some receipts, but had paid back his campaign an amount he said covered those.

Much of that money was used to pay the loan, taxes and even depreciation on the Speaker’s private plane. No reasonable person would be making excuses for a corporate CEO or non-profit director who did the same thing out of company/organization funds. In fact, no politician in any other state would likely get away with it, and indeed many have been convicted for doing the same thing. Actually, even in South Carolina former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard pled guilty to “converting campaign funds to personal use.”

But Ken Ard isn’t Bobby Harrell, and that takes us back to tyranny. The House Speaker has more unchecked power than any other single politician in the state, and he’s pulling out all the stops to avoid consequences. He is pushing his allies in the House to pass multiple bills to let him off free and clear from any prosecution, and to make sure he can’t be held accountable for any further offense, no matter how blatant. The two bills last week – one to strip the Attorney General of his constitutional authority as chief prosecutor and the other to give the Speaker and Senate President the power to select prosecutors for public corruption and ethics cases – were not only absurd but absolutely tyrannical.

Citizens groups and journalists were watching, and caught the legislation in time to raise the outrage level. But it’s a safe bet there’s more to come, and the full nature of Harrell’s power is becoming clearer.

In the next couple of weeks, Judge Casey Manning will rule whether or not to throw this entire criminal investigation – now before a grand jury – back to the Ethics Committee. We don’t know why the judge would be considering such a move. There is no legal authority to do so, especially because many of us argued to the Attorney General for months that we saw a clear pattern of public corruption, over which the House Ethics Committee has no jurisdiction. The A.G. was reluctant to take on the matter right away, and wanted us to first explore the process of filing with the Ethics Committee. We did so, but the constitutional due process challenges we encountered would have made it impossible to pursue even the step of giving it to the Committee to refer to the A.G. (which isn’t legally necessary anyway). Once we made the A.G. aware of what we discovered, he agreed to take on the matter and has since pursued it diligently and responsibly, without flinching in the face of Harrell’s intimidation tactics.

Alan Wilson was always the proper authority to pursue this matter, and the Ethics Committee has no business touching a public corruption case. To let the Speaker’s staff now investigate a matter that is before a Grand Jury would be irresponsible and even dangerous, and it seems highly unlikely that a judge could or would allow it when there is no legal authority to do so. Let’s hope the court will put an end to the contortion of our justice system that is allowing Harrell to assert, not his rights, but his power.

PS: Please read these two columns by Cindi Scoppe at The State. She does an excellent job outlining these issues!