The head of the political-action committee with ties to suspended S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell denied accusations Wednesday that the group ran a separate fund under the control of the Charleston Republican.
India Null, executive director of the Palmetto Leadership Council, also denied that PAC’s money was used to influence legislators in this year’s legislative election of an S.C. Supreme Court chief justice.
Ashley Landess, president of a limited-government think tank who submitted the original ethics complaints about Harrell, said Wednesday that she had spoken with state investigators about concerns in the political community that the speaker controlled an “operations fund” set up by the Palmetto Leadership Council. The head of the S.C. Policy Council declined to say when the conversation took place or discuss details.
The Post and Courier of Charleston, citing anonymous sources, reported Wednesday state investigators are asking if Palmetto Leadership Council money was used to help win support for Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal’s successful re-election. Harrell was Toal’s main supporter in the fiercely contested General Assembly election.
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Null, the Palmetto Leadership Council’s sole employee, said she runs that PAC and does not coordinate with Harrell. However, the PAC’s now-defunct website included a message from Harrell to show his support for the council.
Null said she did not give PAC money to lawmakers to convince them to support Toal.
Typically, the PAC contributed to Republican candidates for the House, according to filings it once made to the state. Once elected — or re-elected — those candidates voted to elect Harrell as speaker. The last large set of contributions to legislators from the Palmetto Leadership Council came two years ago, according to state records.
“I am 100 percent within the law,” Null said of the Palmetto Leadership Council, which had two separate accounts, one to support candidates and another to pay its operating costs.
After a 2010 federal court decision struck down an S.C. law defining political committees, the Palmetto Leadership Council is no longer required to submit spending reports to the state. However, Null kept filing the quarterly reports until January, when she stopped because of what she called misrepresentations in news reports about the PAC’s spending.
Null shared the council’s main 2014 records with The State on Wednesday. They showed contributions and disbursements consistent with previous filings sent to the S.C. Ethics Commission, including many contributions to Republican candidates running for the House and the House Republican Caucus.
Donors to the PAC included some of the state’s largest companies, utilities and law firms. The largest donors — including AT&T, BBT bank, automaker BMW, the McNair Law Firm and the Norfolk-Southern railway — gave more than $20,000 each since 2008, according to state records.
During that same time period, two of the Palmetto Leadership Council’s biggest expenses were to buy campaign-mailing services from two businesses with ties to GOP state representatives, Rick Quinn of Lexington and Jim Merrill of Berkeley.
Merrill’s Geechee Communications was paid $122,000 and Richard Quinn & Associates, operated by state Rep. Quinn’s father, was paid $69,000.
Both Quinn and Merrill said Wednesday they were not influenced because they did work for the Harrell-affiliated PAC. Merrill added he earned only a small profit from the work.
Null did not disclose records for the council’s separate operations fund, which is not publicly reported and is not subject to the state’s $3,500-a-year limit on contributions to PACs. Null said she did not share the records because a reporter did not ask to see them until late Wednesday, and they typically are private.
Null said the council received $60,000 to $75,000 a year extra from about 20 donors to pay for her salary, health insurance premiums and phone bill as well as some event costs.
“That way, I had more money to go directly to candidates,” she said.
The operations fund did not cover all expenses to run the PAC, she said. Additional operating expenses were taken from the account that has been made public, she said. Records filed with the S.C. Ethics Commission show, for instance, that some of Null’s salary and phone bills were paid from the main account.
The Palmetto Leadership Council has raised close to $2 million, according to the state and PAC records. The PAC, started in 2002, now has about $55,000 on hand, Null said.
After an investigation that lasted more than a year, Harrell was charged last month with nine misdemeanor charges of misusing money from his campaign for personal trips on his plane and to pay an administrative assistant in his insurance office.
Null said she spoke with state investigators on the Harrell case in July 2013, giving them access to the PAC’s bank account records. She declined to discuss specifics of what was said in that meeting, adding it was her only meeting with authorities. She denied rumors that she is involved in ongoing probes of the General Assembly.
Reports have circulated at the State House about a multi-pronged investigation into legislative ethics in the wake of Harrell’s removal from his powerful political seat.
The State reported last week that at least two House members have been approached by state investigators looking into allegations of illegal vote-swapping in the race for S.C. Supreme Court chief justice. The probe involves allegations that lawmakers illegally traded votes in the race between Chief Justice Toal and her challenger, Supreme Court Associate Justice Costa Pleicones, and two women running for a Greenville County family court seat. Trading votes in a judicial race is a misdemeanor.
Even before Harrell was indicted, PACs tied to House members had come under scrutiny. Good-government advocates Wednesday urged a special S.C. House committee to outlaw so-called “leadership PACs” as they consider reforms to the state’s weak ethics laws. The last ethics overhaul came after the Operation Lost Trust scandal of the 1990s that ensnared 17 lawmakers in a federal corruption investigation.
John Crangle, S.C. director of the government watchdog Common Cause group, called the House leadership PACs, such as the Palmetto Leadership Council, a “terrible abuse of power, where lawmakers use their office to extort money from people.”
At least three leadership PACs operate in the House in addition to the one tied to Harrell. Those PACs are affiliated with:
• House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, whose panel writes the House’s version of the annual state budget.
• Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, whose panel gets proposals dealing with businesses and regulations.
• Rules Committee chairman Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, who recently played a key role in redistricting the state’s congressional and State House districts.
Two Democrats also had ties to PACs, state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg and former Rep. Harry Ott of Calhoun. The committee affiliated with Cobb-Hunter is no longer active, according to state records.
Null and Wendy Homeyer, executive director for the leadership PACs tied to White and Sandifer, said their organizations are in a state of limbo over threats to end House leadership PACs.
The directors soon will have to decide whether to pitch donors and plan parties for next year that draw together politicians and business leaders that lead to thousands in contributions.
“We could be going out of business,” Homeyer said.