SC watchdog group: No plan to send Harrell complaint to House panel

05/12/2014 10:58 PM

05/13/2014 9:09 AM

The leader of a government watchdog group who accused House Speaker Bobby Harrell of corruption said Monday she has no plans to ask the House Ethics Committee to investigate those charges.

“I’m not inclined to hand a complaint that alleges public corruption, which is a felony, to a member of the speaker’s staff, who might also be a witness,” said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council.

Circuit Judge Casey Manning ruled Monday the House Ethics Committee — not the state grand jury, led by attorney general Alan Wilson — has the exclusive right to review a complaint against Speaker Harrell.

House Ethics Chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, declined to comment late Monday, saying he had not read Manning’s ruling.

But House rules and state law say the Ethics Committee can start an investigation on its own if four of its 10 bi-partisan members agree or if someone, including the attorney general, presents a complaint.

In February 2013, Landess accused Harrell of using campaign money and his legislative position for personal gain. Seeing a “pattern of public corruption,” Landess decided to take the matter, which she saw as criminal, directly to Wilson’s office.

Landess skipped the House Ethics Committee because, she said, there are inherent conflicts of interest in House members investigating Harrell, who appoints House members to committees and oversees staff.

Wilson asked the State Law Enforcement Division to conduct a preliminary investigation into the Charleston Republican and, later, referred the matter to the state grand jury for further investigation.

Bingham and other committee members have said they would treat Harrell like any other member if the matter comes before them. According to state law, preliminary investigations conducted by House and Senate ethics committees are done in secret. If an ethics committee finds probable cause, the case will become public.

If the committee finds evidence of criminal activity, it can refer the matter to the attorney general. The committee also must report its findings, in writing, to the House speaker, Harrell.

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