A state grand jury will investigate allegations that House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, misused campaign money and his legislative position for personal gain.
Harrell, one of the Legislature’s most powerful leaders, said Monday that he was “shocked” by the move, adding, in an email statement, the decision to give the allegations to the grand jury runs counter to what he has been hearing from investigators.
“This decision contradicts every indication that SLED and the attorney general’s office have given us on the progress of this investigation,” Harrell wrote. “I have cooperated fully and voluntarily with this investigation, provided access to everything they requested and met with investigators for several interviews. At every stage of this investigation it was reiterated to us that investigators have found no areas of concern.”
In February, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate Harrell after Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, wrote a letter to the attorney general raising questions about the legality of Harrell reimbursing himself about $300,000 from his campaign account to fly his private plane on state business. The complaint also alleged Harrell may have misused his position as speaker to benefit himself and his business.
Last month, SLED sent what was described as a “voluminous” report to the attorney general’s office.
Wilson’s office announced Monday that the matter would go before a state grand jury — whose proceedings are held in secret — for investigation. Empaneling a statewide grand jury requires the approval of the attorney general, the head of SLED and a circuit judge.
“This has drawn on for far too long and been done behind closed doors,” Harrell said in his statement. “I call on the attorney general to immediately release the entire SLED report to the public. This report contains the facts of this matter, facts that have been kept from the public and even kept from my attorneys and me.”
Harrell also said the attorney general’s office informed news media about the grand-jury decision before notifying his attorney. But spokesman Mark Powell of Wilson’s office said that is not true — someone from the attorney general’s office made contact with Harrell’s attorney 30 minutes before releasing the information publicly, Powell said.
Powell also said that due to the ongoing investigation, the SLED report would not be released.
Opinions differ as to what the grand jury’s involvement in the case means.
“It looks to me like Harrell’s in some very serious trouble,” said John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina, a government watchdog group that has been pushing for a thorough investigation of Harrell. “Wilson would not send this to the grand jury unless he thought he was going to get something back by way of charges.”
Sending it to grand jury, Crangle said, also serves a purpose, given the issue is moving forward in an election year.
The grand jury allows Wilson of Lexington — like Harrell, a Republican — to “say to political supporters of Bobby Harrell that he didn’t make the charges himself” if the grand jury returns an indictment.
But former S.C. attorney general Henry McMaster said the grand jury’s involvement does not mean the allegations against Harrell will result in an indictment. It does mean Wilson still has questions that were not answered by the SLED investigation, said McMaster, a Republican.
The grand jury — unlike law enforcement — has the power to subpoena documents and witnesses to testify under oath.
Law enforcement, McMaster said, can issue warrants, but they must be for very specific requests. Grand juries can ask for any documents related to a certain topic — “fishing” for evidence.
If Wilson asks the grand jury for an indictment, the jury’s members will vote on whether there is probable cause that a crime was committed. It would take a “yes” vote from at least 12 of the 18 jurors to find probable cause and return an indictment.
If Wilson decides not to move forward with charges, he could request the grand jury produce a report saying why, McMaster said. If that happens, the report could include recommendations to the Legislature for ways to strengthen state ethics laws, including eliminating ambiguity about what is a violation and what is not.
Landess with the libertarian-leaning Policy Council previously had worried publicly that the state would not thoroughly investigate Harrell, one of the most powerful people in state government. However, she said she was encouraged by the news Monday.
She and other watchdog groups have highlighted recent ethics cases — from former Gov. Mark Sanford, who paid the largest ethics fine in S.C. history, to former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard to former state Sen. Robert Ford, both of whom resigned — as reasons the state needs to strengthen its laws governing the behavior of public officials.
“It tells us that there will not be a whitewash,” she said. “The grand jury would only be going into this if they were going to investigate or they were going to take action.
“If it’s at this level, that means it’s going to be taken seriously, and that is a very good sign for the accountability process.”
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.