Editorial: Harrell expenditures a case study in shortcomings of legislative self-policing

September 27, 2012 

THE TWO BIGGEST campaign-finance scandals in modern S.C. history have involved expenditures by high-profile officials that weren’t directly related to campaigning. Then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard used his campaign account to pay for a family vacation, clothes and other personal items that the law didn’t allow. Among other sins, then-Gov. Mark Sanford reimbursed himself for several small expenses that looked like they were related to his travels to see his mistress, but he didn’t provide sufficient detail to be sure.

So the first thing that smart politicians should have learned was this: Be careful how you spend money in your campaign account, particularly when you are reimbursing yourself. And then this: Be extra careful about how you report those expenditures. And the bigger the numbers, the more careful you should be. Particularly if you’re a high-profile politician.

Which makes the case of House Speaker Bobby Harrell truly puzzling, because Mr. Harrell has always struck us as a smart politician.

Charleston’s Post and Courier reports that Mr. Harrell has reimbursed himself more than $325,000 since 2008, mostly for flights on his single-engine plane and for legislative work done by an assistant who works for the insurance agency he owns. The speaker’s office says that figure covers a slightly longer period than the newspaper reported but doesn’t dispute that it’s a large number, noting that being speaker carries extra duties that other legislators don’t have, which requires extra administrative support and extensive travel inside and outside the state.

There’s nothing wrong with using campaign funds to travel to political or legislative events. There’s nothing wrong with using campaign funds to pay for extra clerical help on legislative or political business. The problem is the lack of detail on Mr. Harrell’s expenditure reports. For instance, on nine occasions, he reported travel reimbursements to himself of more than $10,000, three of them for more than $20,000, with no explanation of how many trips were involved, the destinations or what time period was covered.

Mr. Harrell’s office provided details of some of those trips to The Post and Courier and to us, but journalists — or ordinary citizens — shouldn’t have to interview the candidate or his staff to find out such basic information. Although state law does not specify how itemized the itemized expenditures have to be, it’s difficult to argue that what Mr. Harrell provided is adequate. In fact, the attorney for the State Ethics Commission said she considered his reports incomplete.

One purpose of the disclosure requirement is to make sure candidates don’t put campaign funds to personal use; without sufficient detail, it’s hard to tell whether the expenditures are appropriate.

Enough questions have been raised that Mr. Harrell should amend his reports to include the sort of details his office has given to those who asked. And of course he should be more specific in the future. He also would be wise to pay his administrative assistant directly from the campaign account, rather than reimbursing himself for the salary he paid her through his business, a practice that just raises too many questions.

Beyond that, this case reminds us once again of the problems with our campaign finance laws. It became clear after the Ethics Commission brought charges against Mr. Sanford that state law needed to be more specific about how much detail candidates must provide about expenditures, particularly when they are reimbursing themselves, and yet nothing was done. It became clear after questions were raised about air travel that was donated to Gov. Nikki Haley that state law needed to spell out how to calculate the cost of travel on private planes, and yet nothing was done.

Most of all, it’s a reminder once again of why the House and Senate shouldn’t police their own ethics. It doesn’t matter that the Ethics Commission’s attorney thinks Mr. Harrell’s reports are inadequate, because the independent agency has no jurisdiction. What’s adequate is determined by the House Ethics Committee, a body that has no expertise in ethics law and no record of enforcing it, that is staffed by an attorney who ultimately reports to the speaker and that has five of six members who have received campaign donations from a political action committee affiliated with Mr. Harrell.

That arrangement has always been a recipe for abuse, and in this case it ill-serves Mr. Harrell, who likely has not misspent campaign funds but who will remain under a cloud because there will be no independent review of the questions that have been legitimately raised by his skimpy reporting.

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