COLUMBIA, SC — S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell has abused his legislative power by trying to aid his pharmaceutical business, the head of a Columbia limited-government think tank said Tuesday, arguing that abuse is another sign that the state needs tougher ethics rules.
S.C. Policy Council president Ashley Landess said ethics reform efforts must remove conflicts of interest, including the speakers role in naming members of a commission that selects the finalists for judgeships.
Were not headed for a place where one politician with extraordinary power can set himself above the law were there, Landess said.
Harrell, a Charleston Republican who has been speaker since 2005, denied any wrongdoing and accused Landess of seeking revenge for his decision not to reappoint her to a state commission.
Landess provided reporters with copies of 2006 emails by then-S.C. Board of Pharmacy member Bobby Bradham, who wrote to agency officials about his concerns over Speaker Harrell seeking permission for his business to sell repackaged prescription drugs.
They (Harrell and a business partner) are not happy that they have invested all this (sic) energies, time and monies, Bradham wrote. Efforts to reach Bradham on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Subsequently, Harrell received clearance from federal and state authorities for his business to sell drugs to doctors, according to the emails.
Landess also provided a copy of a handwritten note on the speakers office stationery that was sent to the Pharmacy Board with the state application. We would appreciate your urgent attention to this request, said the note, signed Bobby Harrell.
The emails suggest the (states) most powerful politician used his office to benefit his personal company, Landess said, adding she does not think Harrell is alone in improperly using his elected office.
Harrell said Tuesday that he was not trying to influence the Pharmacy Board and sought to follow state rules.
I said clearly to them that I didnt want to be treated any differently than anybody else, he said. Im a small business owner and a part-time legislator and, like any small-business owner, I talk to the agencies that are involved where the business is concerned.
The speaker did not dispute the authenticity of the emails. But Harrell said he did not write the note sent on his office stationery, which he said he pays for personally. Harrell said a staff member wrote the note at his request.
Harrell also said he did not recall getting upset over questions about his business, Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals. The company sells non-narcotic drugs that it repackages into smaller packages for dispensing at doctors offices.
Calling her claims baseless, Harrell said Landess has been upset with him since he did not reappoint her to the state Lottery Commission after he became speaker.
Landess, appointed to the commission by Harrells predecessor David Wilkins, literally laughed at Harrells claim of sour grapes.
He is avoiding discussing the problem, she said, calling Harrells accusation petty and ridiculous.
Landess also said it is a conflict of interest for Harrell, as speaker, to appoint half the members of a screening committee that nominates judges. One of those Harrell has named to the committee is his brother, a Charleston attorney.
The judges later could find themselves in the position of ruling on the legality of laws passed by the Harrell-led House, Landess said.
Harrells involvement with Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals has been questioned before.
In 2008, The State published a lengthy article saying Harrell had asked the state Department of Health and Human Services to approve allowing a Medicaid managed-care company to use repackaged pharmaceuticals. That company contracted with doctors, some of whom purchased drugs from Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals. State officials wrote each other emails saying Speaker Harrell was asking for expedited approval.
Harrell denied any wrongdoing, saying he was advocating for the managed-care company because it was a constituent. He added that, From time to time, like any other business owner, I need to talk to state government about what were doing at Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals.
Published reports last year also questioned whether Harrell should have reimbursed himself $280,000 from his campaign account since 2008 for, among other things, using his personal plane. Harrell subsequently returned about $23,000 to his campaign.
Landess said the Policy Council is considering filing a ethics complaint against Harrell with the House Ethics Committee.