Expressions of sadness and disappointment – and calls to strengthen the state’s ethics laws – followed House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s guilty plea to six counts of public corruption Thursday.
Some called for reforms.
“We know more now ... how dangerously corrupt our state has become and the scope of power exerted by a handful of legislators,” said Ashley Landess, executive director of the S.C. Policy Council, the small-government think tank that filed the complaint against Harrell that became the basis of the investigation. “We also know how flawed the process is to hold them accountable, and exactly what has to be done to fix it.”
Others praised law enforcement and prosecutors for their work.
“The bottom line is: No one – regardless of whether it is the speaker of the House of Representatives or a county sheriff – is above the law,” said state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland. “The judicial system in South Carolina is working.”
Some reactions were more personal.
“I’m sorry for the speaker, personally, because he is a friend,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, a former Senate Ethics Committee chairman. “But ... ultimately, the ethics laws prevailed at least in that case, and, hopefully, it will create an environment in Columbia where we can pass some meaningful ethics legislation.”
Gov. Nikki Haley was more pointed in her response, saying the Harrell case provides the “proof that we need” to “do all we can to get (ethics legislation) passed.”
Haley declared ethics reform her top priority at the end of 2012, after her own brushes with ethics allegations. The majority-GOP House Ethics Committee twice cleared Haley of allegations that she used her office as a state representative for personal gain.
“(W)e have pushed for the last two years for ethics reform,” Haley said Thursday. “We’ve said that we need to have income disclosures for our legislators. We’ve said we need to have independent investigations. ... We’re going to come back with stronger ethics reform.”
Another ‘Lost Trust’?
Harrell’s agreement to cooperate with an ongoing state and federal investigation also signaled, for some, a warning that another Operation Lost Trust may be about the break.
That 1990s federal public corruption probe resulted in more than two dozen convictions, including of 17 lawmakers.
Fallout from that scandal led to the state’s first sweeping ethics reforms, which lawmakers say now need to be updated.
Jaime Harrison, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said Harrell’s case was “a testament to the one-party (GOP) rule here in South Carolina and the culture of corruption that is very pervasive here in Columbia.”
But House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said, “There is no Lost Trust. There is no money floating around, nobody buying votes up there.
“Anybody that comes to offer me money for my vote is either crazy or a federal agent. It doesn’t happen.”
A decade of ethics cases
Harrell’s guilty pleas follow a decade of high-profile ethics cases, mostly involving Republicans, who control the House, Senate and Governor’s Mansion.
• In 2004, GOP Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Sharpe was indicted for illegal cock-fighting. Sharpe later pleaded guilty.
• In 2007, then-Republican S.C. treasurer Thomas Ravenel resigned, pleaded guilty to cocaine charges and went to jail. Ravenel now is attempting a political comeback, running as a petition candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Lindsey Graham.
• In 2009, Republican Gov. Mark Sanford admitted to having an affair with an Argentinian woman and paid record ethics fines for illegal travel and campaign-related expenses.
• In 2012, GOP Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned, pleaded guilty to spending campaign money on personal items and was sentenced to probation.
• As governor, Haley has had to pay fines for misreporting campaign contributions and repay the state for using state-owned vehicles for campaigning.
Democrats also have come under fire.
• State Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston resigned last year and was fined for spending campaign money on personal expenses.
• State Rep. Harold Mitchell of Spartanburg also was ordered to pay fines for misusing his campaign account.
Harrell agreed Thursday not to run for public office for three years.
Asked whether Harrell could make a political comeback, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon pointed to recent history.
“In 49 states, this would be the death knell of a political career,” Huffmon said. “But in the state where a convicted drug felon feels he has the right to run for U.S. Senate and Mark Sanford finds his way back from the Appalachian Trail, you should never say never.”