The Don

May 1, 2014

Inside Insight

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ariail The housespeaker

ISN’T IT TIME TO CALL IT WHAT IT IS?

The recipe for corruption is concentration of power plus secrecy. Ignore corruption long enough and it leads to tyranny.

The hard part is recognizing when we’ve crossed that line. What’s happening in our state is so outrageous that it seems impossible for it to be true. One legislator cannot possibly control all three branches of a state’s government to the point that he can decide what the law is and whether or not he violated it.

Until he can. Our House Speaker is very close to having that kind of power – it’s no longer possible to deny that. It has been close to two years since Renee Dudley’s article in the Post and Courier exposed the Speaker’s campaign practices, and more than a year since SCPC filed a complaint with the Attorney General alleging possible public corruption by the Speaker. During this time, Harrell has tried everything from pushing laws to decriminalize ethics violations to stripping the Attorney General of his constitutional authority. And now he’s raised issues so absurd that no one outside his reliable defenders believes they have any legal merit.

No private citizen would have been given such deferential treatment. But Bobby Harrell is no ordinary citizen, nor even an ordinary politician. He has more power than anyone else in the state, and arguably more unchecked power than any single American politician. That is working to his benefit and at the expense of our entire justice system.

The Speaker reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign fund and spent much of it to pay off his private airplane. That would be clearly illegal for any private citizen. But the Speaker argues he did nothing wrong because a loophole in the ethics law says politicians can use their campaign funds for “ordinary expenses connected with official duties.” That is a ridiculous caveat that should be removed entirely. Absurd as it is, however, it’s even more absurd to argue that paying the loan, taxes, and depreciation on a private airplane – through a formula Harrell himself says he created – is within the law. Unfortunately, the Ethics Act has clearly become not only toothless but actually allows politicians to get away with illegal behavior.

If a private citizen reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars from an account that didn’t belong to him and used the money to pay for an airplane, he would be accused of embezzlement rather than “converting funds to personal use.” If a private citizen bullied regulators into issuing a permit, that behavior could rise to level of extortion. But for politicians, such activity can be dismissed as merely “using public office for personal gain.”

It’s bad enough that any politician could skirt the law by arguing serious crimes are less so when committed under the Ethics Act. But to then have those crimes investigated by their own staff in secret – as would be the case if the Ethics Committee were in charge of the Speaker’s case – is a luxury that not only no private citizen has but no other legislator has. Only the Speaker controls the staff that would investigate him, the hiring/paying of any outside investigator, and the appeal process for any finding.

And only the Speaker has control over half the committee that nominates judicial candidates, and direct influence over the majority of possible votes on a judge.

That is what is most disturbing about the fact that a judge is actually considering shutting down a full-blown grand jury investigation into public corruption allegations (filed by SCPC) against Speaker Harrell, and ruling that the House Ethics Committee gets to first decide if a crime has been committed.

If Judge Casey Manning rules to do that, he’ll essentially be saying that the duly elected Attorney General cannot exercise the authority specifically granted to him by the state constitution to pursue any criminal matter in any court in the state. There is no other South Carolinian for whom such a ruling would be possible.

The state’s most powerful politician is being held to a special standard, and a dangerous one. Is it an exaggeration to say that one politician’s ability to contort the justice system to this degree rises to the level of tyranny? If it were in any other country, we’d say absolutely not. If this were happening in Congress, we’d be outraged. And if this saga had gone on this long in any other state it would have become a media feeding frenzy, with every angle explored and even exploited. But this is South Carolina, and Harrell is the Speaker of the House. Not one House member has publicly demanded that he explain himself. The governor seems to be wilfully ignoring the corruption that is destroying our state. With some shining exceptions, even some media outlets have traditionally been reluctant to aggressively investigate the Speaker, other legislative leaders.

The unwillingness to call one politician a tyrant may well be an indication that he has become one. Whatever the case, fear of exaggeration would be an awfully weak reason for losing control of our government.