Bobby Harrell, the ex-speaker of the S.C. House who pleaded guilty Thursday to state charges of misusing campaign money and agreed to resign his office, is now locked into an ironclad plea deal that requires him to tell federal and state authorities about illegal activities of others, including lawmakers.
The five-page plea deal allows Harrell, one of South Carolina’s most powerful politicians, to avoid prison, but it puts him on probation and levies $130,000 in fines and penalties.
But Harrell has promised to help the State Law Enforcement Division and the FBI and must take lie detector tests to ensure he’s telling the truth – under the risk of going behind bars.
Such cooperation agreements are rarely used in state courts, but are more common in federal court, where law enforcement authorities often use a negotiated guilty plea to see if they can get information about other peoples’ criminal activities.
Never miss a local story.
“I’ve only done a handful of these in state court,” said 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, a 20-year prosecutor assigned to the Harrell case.
Veteran Columbia defense attorney Jack Swerling, who attended the plea hearing at the Richland County Courthouse but has no ties to the case, said the deal suggests more charges could come.
“I got the impression they were expecting him to cooperate in some ongoing state or federal investigation,” Swerling said. “He was a very influential guy, and so he may have some information that they are seeking.”
While speculation has centered on possible probes of other state lawmakers, Swerling said investigations could involve allegations outside the State House: “They can ask you about anything.”
Because of Harrell’s position atop the General Assembly, John Crangle, state director for government watchdog Common Cause, said Harrell’s information could well lead to criminal charges against other legislators in a roundup like Operation Lost Trust. That 1990s bribery scandal ensnared 17 lawmakers and led to new ethics laws.
“Harrell has to rat out everyone he’s been involved with,” said Crangle, who predicted another 15 to 20 lawmakers might be charged after the Harrell plea. “This is just the beginning. ... The government has a huge amount of leverage over this guy.”
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, an attorney who has worked with the solicitor, said: “If anyone did anything wrong, they should be nervous because Pascoe does a fantastic job.”
But Rutherford, a Richland Democrat who was the only lawmaker to attend Thursday’s hearing, said he doesn’t think anyone will find sweeping criminal activity at the State House.
Bill Nettles, the U.S. attorney for South Carolina, has declined comment on who might be targets of any Harrell-related federal investigation, as has Pascoe.
In recent weeks, state and federal law enforcement agents jointly interviewed some House members about possible illegal vote-swapping in judicial races, according to law enforcement and legislative sources.
Harrell, a 58-year-old Charleston Republican, pleaded guilty Thursday to six counts of use of campaign funds for personal expenses.
As part of his plea deal, Harrell was supposed to resign “immediately” from the House seat he has held for 21 years. But House leadership did not have confirmation of a resignation letter sent to the Clerk of the House as of late Thursday.
Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning gave Harrell six years in prison – one year for each charge – but suspended them if Harrell successfully serves three years on probation. While on probation, Harrell can’t have guns or leave the state without permission from authorities and cannot run for office.
During a 45-minute hearing, Pascoe said prosecutors and SLED agent Lt. Kevin Baker had caught Harrell in blatant falsehoods about bogus legislative trips made in his personal plane. In one case, Harrell falsified flight logs about a nonexistent round trip between Charleston and Columbia, Pascoe said.
Since it costs far more to operate a plane than a car, Harrell would create a false business-related trip in his airplane, then bill his campaign account for hundreds of dollars more than if he had taken the same trip by car – which Harrell in fact did on more than one occasion, Pascoe said.
It took an assistant state attorney general, Brian Petrano, sifting through reams of data to discover Harrell’s falsifications, Pascoe told Judge Manning.
The evidence included doctored flight logs unearthed by a SLED forensics lab technician using a microscope to bring out the original indentations in Harrell’s flight logs that had been crossed out to create a false entry, Pascoe said.
But the crucial evidence was cellphone records clearly showing that Harrell used a car to travel up I-26 to Columbia from Charleston on days when he said he flew to the Capital City and back to Charleston in his plane.
Another example of Harrell illegally pocketing money from his campaign fund came in June 2009, when Harrell billed his campaign $3,874 for a March 2009 plane trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Pascoe said. On that trip, Baker discovered “the defendant flew the plane to and from Fort Lauderdale to attend a high school baseball game, and he flew with family and friends,” Pascoe told the judge.
In an interview with SLED, Harrell told Baker the trip was related to his legislative work – “a see-and-be-seen trip with constituents,” Pascoe said.
“But the flight had nothing to do with any legislative purposes,” Pascoe told Manning.
For months, Harrell has insisted he was innocent and that any financial irregularities were the result of sloppy record-keeping.
‘A DIFFICULT DAY’
Other conditions of Harrell’s plea agreement included:
• Agreeing not to seek or hold public office for three years.
• Paying a $30,000 fine plus an additional $93,958, which is the amount of campaign money that Harrell reimbursed himself for for using his plane for personal use. Harrell will also turn over all of his remaining campaign account to the state’s general fund. Pascoe said the amount is under $10,000. A state records check revealed the amount is about $6,100.
Harrell’s lawyer, Bart Daniel, told Manning that Harrell had fully cooperated with authorities throughout the investigation. And Harrell and an accountant, in going back over his records, found “tens of thousands of dollars” worth of business-related expenses he could have billed his campaign for, but didn’t, Daniel said.
Toward the end of Thursday’s hearing, Manning asked Harrell, “Is there anything you’d like to tell me, Mr. Harrell? You don’t have to. I know this has been a difficult day for you. It’s a difficult day for everybody.”
Harrell replied briefly, with no apology or explanation as to why he created bogus flight records: “It’s been a particularly hard two years for my family. Doing this today, we hope brings an end to it.”
After the hearing, Harrell issued this statement through the S.C. House Republican Caucus: “We have a fundamental disagreement over the proper use of a campaign account to fly a private aircraft to conduct state and campaign business, but to continue to fight this would have taken at least another year, possibly two. Cathy (Harrell’s wife) and I are deeply appreciative to everyone who has offered words of encouragement and prayers on our behalf. My passion for our state remains as strong as it has ever been, and I will continue to look for ways to serve the Lowcountry and South Carolina.”
Asked about Harrell’s statement, Pascoe said: “As you read in the plea agreement, he’s going to have to be truthful in the future in any interviews he gives.”
In getting Harrell’s cooperation to be a potential government witness, Pascoe agreed to not prosecute four other indictments against Harrell. However, under a written plea agreement, Pascoe reserves the right to reactivate the indictments and prosecute Harrell if the former speaker lies to law enforcement officials.
The outstanding charges include filing false campaign reports and a common law misconduct in office charge that carries a potential 10-year prison sentence.
A long, legal odyssey led to Harrell’s guilty plea Thursday morning.
It involved a SLED investigation, a State Grand Jury probe, a bitter feud between state Attorney General Alan Wilson and Harrell, and a landmark state Supreme Court decision ruling that state legislators are not immune from criminal prosecution in ethics matters.
The case against Harrell started in 2013 when Crangle – along with Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, a limited-government think tank – brought the initial allegations about the speaker to state Attorney General Alan Wilson.
A letter by Landess to Wilson charged Harrell with using his office for his own financial benefit, using campaign funds for personal purposes and failing to document expenses. After Landess’s letter was made public, Harrell called her complaint “a baseless attack that is driven by a personal and political vendetta. ... This political group’s goal is to conduct a smear campaign against me in the media.”
But Wilson directed SLED to launch an investigation. By January, Wilson announced he would seek a State Grand Jury investigation of irregularities turned up by SLED. The State Grand Jury, whose proceedings are secret, has subpoena and other powers that make it a formidable force in any criminal investigation.
Out of public view, Harrell and his attorneys filed motions before a circuit court judge aimed at disqualifying Wilson. The motions alleged Wilson had a conflict of interest, had made improper statements and that an Attorney General could not criminally prosecute ethics violations unless the House Ethics Committee signed off on the investigation.
However, The State newspaper published a story about Harrell’s effort to scuttle Wilson’s investigation, and a public outcry led to open hearings over whether Wilson should be disqualified and the State Grand Jury investigation ended.
In May, Manning ruled that Wilson had no authority to investigate Harrell on ethics matters because such allegations had to first be vetted by the House Ethics Committee. Wilson appealed to the state Supreme Court. In July, that court ruled that Wilson did have the authority to investigate lawmakers ethics’ violations.
But the court also ordered the matter of whether Wilson should be disqualified for a conflict of interest back to Manning.
Faced with a decision that might go against him, Wilson handed the case off to Pascoe, who would function as an independent, special prosecutor. According to a court order signed by Manning on Aug. 29, Pascoe had complete authority to make all decisions going forward “as he deems appropriate.”
Many people thought that Pascoe, a Democrat who employed Harrell’s son for a year, wouldn’t bring charges. As recently as late August, Harrell told Republican lawmakers that no charges would be brought against him.
Indictments came 12 days after Pascoe took over the case. Harrell was suspended from office. He chose to plead guilty this week.
“This matter has confirmed that no one in South Carolina is above the law,” Wilson said in a statement.
In remarks to Manning, Pascoe singled out three people in the Attorney General’s office – Assistant Attorney General Creighton Waters, Solicitor General Bob Cook and Petrano.
“Mr. Petrano’s work changed the dynamics of the case for me,” Pascoe said.
The Policy Council’s Landess said after the hearing that for years, Harrell had used his power to smear his foes and drag the case through the legal system up to the S.C. Supreme Court.
“This entire process has taken a real toll on this state,” Landess said. “The integrity of our justice system has been called into question, and public trust significantly damaged. It’s also clear that the process created by legislators to hold themselves ‘accountable’ for corruption is not simply flawed but unconstitutionally designed to protect politicians and intimidate citizens.”
Crangle, stressing that citizen activists like himself and Landess had brought the original allegations to the Attorney General, proved state lawmakers cannot police themselves themselves.
“Every member of the Legislature who did not complain about what Bobby Harrell was doing the last five, six years is complicit in the wrong-doing,” Crangle said. “We should not have to rely on citizen activism. The politicians should have taken this thing under control long ago, and they failed to do that.”
As House Speaker since 2005, Harrell was in a position to know inside information about other members. He appointed committee chairmen, hired staff and set the House agenda.
A political-action committee that Harrell supported has contributed thousands of dollars to other House members’ races. And he spearheaded the re-election of S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal for the chief justice position in February, rounding up the votes in the General Assembly in her victory over Associate Justice Costa Pleicones.
Crangle said he thinks authorities would settle for even minor violations.
“I don’t think the prosecution is concerned whether they bury people 50 feet below the ground or one inch below the ground, as long as they put them under,” Crangle said.
Harrell’s fall from grace came with a political price. State Republican leaders had his race under watch despite Harrell living in a heavily Republican district.
His campaign had received just half of the contributions from the previous two-year election cycle. And contributions to a political action committee that Harrell backed have fallen by 60 percent from four years ago.
In fact, in the past seven months, Harrell has used his campaign war chest, one of the largest in the House, to help pay for his attorneys in his ethics battle. He spent $113,475 on two lawyers – about half of the $235,103 in contributions he received during the current two-year election cycle, according to state records. The state allows lawmakers to use campaign cash for legislative-related legal fees.
In addition, Harrell’s brother, John, resigned this month from the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Committee. As speaker, Harrell had appointed his brother to the committee that reviews judicial candidates elected by the General Assembly. The sway, real or imagined, that Harrell exercised over the selection of state judges – one of the more prestigious, well-paid jobs in state government – was just one of his power bases.
During the hearing, Judge Manning forced Harrell to acknowledge his guilt on all the charges.
“When you plead guilty, you acknowledge the truth contained in these allegations?” Manning asked.
“Yes, sir,” replied Harrell.