The Columbia law firm where former House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s son works is offering a new legal service to legislators: checking their campaign finance records for potential ethics violations.
Pete Strom said his firm started offering the campaign audits – like those performed on income tax returns – during the past year. But the firm had no takers until more than a dozen clients signed up after Harrell was indicted on campaign finance changes in September. The powerful Charleston Republican resigned in October as part of guilty plea agreement.
“No one out there is giving ethics advice and campaign finance advice to public officials,” said Strom, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina. “There’s an obvious need for this.”
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John Crangle, state director for the Common Cause government watchdog group, said he was glad someone stepped up to offer campaign finance advice after a recent spate of troubles by high-level politicians, including two state attorneys general.
Plus, Strom’s firm perhaps has some extra expertise.
“Bobby Harrell’s son would, hopefully, have some kind of knowledge about how to conform to the law,” Crangle said.
Trey Harrell, the former speaker’s son, is helping the firm’s tax expert, John Alphin, with the campaign-finance audits, Strom said. So is former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in November.
Trey Harrell, who could not be reached for comment, started working at the Strom firm in December 2013, when his father was under investigation for alleged ethics violations. Bobby Harrell ended up pleading guilty to, among other things, billing his campaign for personal trips on his airplane.
Strom said Bobby Harrell is not a client. Strom declined to name the state and local politicians who have contracted the firm to examine four years of their campaign finance records – covering the statute of limitations on ethics complaints.
He also passed on disclosing the cost of the audits, which are billed by the hour.
Strom’s attorneys check lawmakers’ contribution records for errors, and make sure they have documentation and receipts to back up expenses. If the proper paperwork is lacking, the firm suggests a candidate repay his or her campaign any questionable expenses, Strom said.
“The state Ethics Commission has not punished people who do a self audit and correct items unless they are already under investigation,” he said.
Strom’s law firm and others considering the new service might have some State House competition: Several state lawmakers said they can get campaign finance advice from the House and Senate ethics committees.
Welcome back, class of 2016
The New Year is bringing some Republican presidential prospects back to South Carolina, which again will host an early primary in 2016.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will attend Gov. Nikki Haley’s inauguration on Wednesday. The former Republican Governors Association chairman is on a tour of gubernatorial inaugurations this month, including another early primary state, Iowa.
Christie, who campaigned for Haley’s re-election bid last year, also will chat with S.C. Republican donors and politicians Wednesday at a meet-and-greet event in Nexsen Pruet’s Columbia law office, said Leighton Lord, an attorney with the firm and a former college classmate of the Garden State boss.
Next comes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is scheduled to speak to the House Republican Caucus’ quarterly reception in Columbia on Jan. 27, said House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville. Perry, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for president in 2012, visited the Palmetto State a few times last year, including the weekend of the Texas A&M-University of South Carolina football game.
The House GOP Caucus expects to hold more receptions this year as 2016 presidential prospects seek face time with top Republicans politicians in the state, Bannister said. Caucus receptions also usually draw potential campaign donors.
Up after Perry is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who will meet March 3 with pastors for a lunch in Columbia and a dinner in Greenville. Jindal was the keynote speaker at the state Republican Party’s main fundraising dinner last year.
David Lane, the American Renewal Project founder organizing the even with pastors, said he also has invited other Republican White House hopefuls, including former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Jeb Bush of Florida, to visit South Carolina later this year.
Lane’s previous pastors’ events brought Huckabee to Greenville last year and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to Columbia in 2013.
Lane said he wants the candidates to get to know the state’s evangelical, pro-life Christian voters as they determine whom to rally around in 2016.
A chance S.C. pols could play Powerball?
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley can’t try for a big Mega Millions jackpot. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal can’t play a Stacks of Green scratch-off game. The local cop can’t put down a couple of bucks to bet his anniversary date on a Pick 4 ticket.
The state Constitution forbids public officials from gambling and betting – even on state-sanctioned games.
“The state lottery is off limits,” a S.C. attorney general’s opinion stated in 2002, the same year the games started. “No public official – state, county, municipal or other – may play the state lottery without being subjected to forfeiture of his or her office.”
State Rep. Kit Spires, R-Lexington, hopes to end that constitutional ban so he and other public officials can have the same chance to play lottery games as other South Carolinians. Spires has introduced a bill to change the law that he hopes gains excitement like a $200 million Powerball prize.
“My son and daughter can play. I can’t,” Spires said. “We could not sway the results of the lottery and make us winners.”
Good luck, Kit. Similar bills introduced over the years have found few players.
Powerful Senate leader Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, struck out at changing the law soon after the state lottery began a decade ago.
More recently, state Rep. Seth Whipper, D-Charleston, took his shots and failed.
Whipper’s proposals over the past three sessions – even ones that would keep the ban on state elected officials but allow all others to play – were tossed aside like a losing Palmetto Cash 5 ticket.
“We never even had the chance to talk about it,” Whipper said.
Perhaps a bill from a Republican in the GOP-dominated General Assembly has a better chance, Whipper said, referring to Spires.
Then again, allowing politicians to play the lottery during a year when reining in the power of lawmakers is a top topic might be a tough game to win.
Do as I do
As Department of Health and Environmental Control boss Catherine Templeton leaves office Monday, here’s a little story about how she took the job personally.
A few months into her tenure, Templeton announced she was going to make battling the state’s obesity problem a priority.
Two years later, when the new state obesity plan came out, Templeton joked about her contribution. She was visibly thinner at that announcement than she was earlier. She said she had been obese when talk of the new program began.
Asked her weight-loss secret, Templeton said she quit reading newspapers, because she was heading to the fast-food joints every time something negative was written about her.
Later that day, she emailed The State newspaper to ask that it run a new photo of her with the obesity plan story instead of her “fat” photo from early in her DHEC tenure.
Staff writer Joey Holleman contributed.