State lawmakers re-elected Charleston Republican Bobby Harrell as House speaker Tuesday, amid questions surrounding the use of his campaign money that could lead to a House ethics investigation.
Harrell said Tuesday no one has filed an ethics complaint against him, despite several government watchdog groups vowing to do so following the Nov. 6 general election.
Harrell, who has been House speaker since June 2005, told reporters Tuesday “this is the only time I am going to answer that question.”
“Going forward I don’t want to be in a situation where you guys are asking and me not answering indicates something is out there,” he said.
Harrell has been under scrutiny since The (Charleston) Post and Courier reported that he did not file receipts for some of his campaign spending. Harrell later reimbursed his campaign account for $23,000.
If someone files a complaint against Harrell — one of the most powerful people in state government — the House Ethics Committee would investigate it. Tuesday, lawmakers agreed to overhaul that committee, expanding it to 10 members, five Republicans and five Democrats. Previously, the committee had six members and only one Democrat.
Harrell and others applauded the change as evidence that Republicans and Democrats were united in reforming the state’s ethics laws. But party leaders were sending mixed signals just moments after the vote.
Rep. Bruce Bannister, the Greenville Republican who earlier in the day was elected the new House majority leader, said the vote does not mean lawmakers are against eliminating the House Ethics Committee and transferring its investigative and decision-making powers to an independent authority.
“This is the first step in looking at our ethics system as a whole,” he said. “At the earliest it would be two years from now to do a constitutional amendment and do away with the House Ethics Committee. ... We knew we needed to do something now to kind of elevate this committee, so it is beyond that party kaleidoscope.”
But House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, said the vote made it clear the House Ethics Committee would not be eliminated.
“This vote today says that our intent is to keep the House Ethics Committee as long as it is fair and balanced,” Ott said.
House lawmakers will meet again today, when Harrell will assign them to their respective committees. Most committees will not see major changes. Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, is expected to replace former Rep. Jim Harrison as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The 2013 legislative session begins Jan. 8.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.