SC speaker: Legislative session will go on despite ethics ‘smear campaign’

jself@thestate.comJanuary 14, 2014 

SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell called a press conference Tuesday to respond to the Attorney General's referral of his ethics case to a grand jury.

JAMIEATTHESTATE

  • What’s next?

    What happens next in the Bobby Harrell ethics case? A look at how the statewide grand jury operates:

    •  State grand jury proceedings are held in secret.

    •  The S.C. attorney general acts as legal counsel to the grand jury.

    The grand jury has broader subpoena powers than law enforcement, allowing it to compel sworn testimony and the production of documents not always brought to light by law enforcement.

    •  Twelve of 18 members of the grand jury would have to vote to bring an indictment.

— House Speaker Bobby Harrell said Tuesday that legislative business will go on as usual, after the Charleston Republican – arguably the most powerful man in state government – railed against news that ethics allegations against him will be heard by a state grand jury.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson released that news Monday – the day before the legislative session began – in a move that Harrell told reporters Tuesday was “intended to inflict political damage” on him and amounted to a “smear campaign.”

Asked what motive fellow Republican Wilson would have to “inflict political damage” on him, Harrell referred reporters to Wilson’s office.

“This is an ongoing criminal investigation before the state grand jury,” Wilson’s spokesman, Mark Powell, responded. “It is inappropriate for us to comment.”

In the House, Harrell conducted business as usual, making no mention of the case, as legislators milled about greeting one another.

House members reported no legislative efforts to take action against Harrell. Republicans, who control the House, declined to comment on the record or were supportive of Harrell.

“I absolutely feel for him and his family, and support him 100 percent in trying to clear his name and exonerate himself,” said former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley.

State Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, Harrell’s next in command as speaker pro tempore, said he has “the same level of support (for Harrell) that I would for any of the colleagues in the House that I serve with. You would certainly want them to get due process in this case.”

Asked for a reaction, House Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, declined to comment.

Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said his party was equally quiet on the matter.

“We’ve got so many other things going on, I think that’s why nobody mentioned anything,” Rutherford said. “If he was indicted for a felony, he would have to resign. At this point, it’s merely an investigation.”

Reactions outside the House were different.

Harrell’s counterpart in the state Senate, President Pro Tempore John Courson, said the ongoing case hurts Harrell’s effectiveness.

“Any time in governance you have a cloud over the individual or the institution, it presents problems,” the Richland Republican said.

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who butted heads with Harrell when she was a legislator and, later, when facing her own ethics allegations, said Tuesday that she has “never been involved in those (kinds of) situations. ... We’ll watch this play out as we have done in the past.”

WATCH

Reade Tuesday morning's story about Wilson's statement

Harrell: Politics at play

Tuesday morning, Harrell called reporters together and doubled down on his request for Wilson to release the SLED report detailing the findings of its investigation.

Harrell said he had not seen the report, described by Wilson’s spokesman as “voluminous,” but said that he was confident it would show that he has committed no crime.

Wilson referred the allegations against Harrell to SLED in February and, last month, SLED reported back to Wilson’s office.

The SLED investigation started after Ashley Landess, president of the libertarian S.C. Policy Council, filed a complaint to Wilson’s office last year, alleging Harrell may have broken state law when he reimbursed himself from his campaign account for flying her personal plane on state business. Landess also questioned whether Harrell had abused his office by lobbying state regulators on behalf of one of his businesses.

Harrell said he was “blindsided” by Wilson’s news Monday.

“Both the (attorney general’s) office and SLED have continuously reassured me and my attorneys that they found nothing that concerned them,” Harrell said. “I fully expected that any day now there would be a release from the (attorney general’s) office saying the investigation was over and there was no factual reason to pursue it any further.”

Harrell said he had cooperated fully with investigators and was able to produce all information requested.

Asked by The State if he were aware of any records, business or personal, or testimony sought by investigators that was not provided, Harrell said no.

Reporters pushed Harrell to provide them with the documents he sent to SLED, but he said he would not. Instead, he called on SLED to release its report publicly.

Powell, the attorney general’s spokesman, said “it would be unlawful for our office or SLED to release any report in any ongoing criminal investigation.”

Harrell is represented by two Charleston attorneys, Bart Daniel and Gedney Howe, both known for their involvement in the state’s notorious public corruption case, Operation Lost Trust, an FBI sting operation involving legislative corruption.

A former U.S. attorney for South Carolina, Daniel received the highest award given to U.S. attorneys for his prosecution of the Lost Trust cases. Howe represented then-state Rep. Tim Wilkes of Winnsboro, the only lawmaker indicted in Lost Trust who was found not guilty.

Harrell’s attorneys were unavailable Tuesday for comment.

In a closed luncheon Tuesday, Harrell told the House’s GOP caucus that he would do whatever he could to keep the matter “from being a distraction from us doing what we need to do for the state,” House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, told The State.

Bannister said Republican House members are “absolutely behind” Harrell.

“The caucus was behind him and supportive, and willing to do whatever we could to get this behind him,” Bannister said.

What’s next?

What happens next in the Bobby Harrell ethics case? A look at how the statewide grand jury operates:

State grand jury proceedings are held in secret.

The S.C. attorney general acts as legal counsel to the grand jury.

The grand jury has broader subpoena powers than law enforcement, allowing it to compel sworn testimony and the production of documents not always brought to light by law enforcement.

Twelve of 18 members of the grand jury would have to vote to bring an indictment.

Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed. Reach Self at (803)771-8658

 

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