COLUMBIA S.C. — 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 Wilsons office.
This is an ongoing criminal investigation before the state grand jury, Wilsons 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, Harrells 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.
Weve got so many other things going on, I think thats why nobody mentioned anything, Rutherford said. If he was indicted for a felony, he would have to resign. At this point, its merely an investigation.
Reactions outside the House were different.
Harrells counterpart in the state Senate, President Pro Tempore John Courson, said the ongoing case hurts Harrells 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. ... Well watch this play out as we have done in the past.
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 Wilsons 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 Wilsons office.
The SLED investigation started after Ashley Landess, president of the libertarian S.C. Policy Council, filed a complaint to Wilsons 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 Wilsons news Monday.
Both the (attorney generals) 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 generals) 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 generals 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 states 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.
Harrells attorneys were unavailable Tuesday for comment.
In a closed luncheon Tuesday, Harrell told the Houses 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 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