I WAS HIKING up a mountain not far from the Appalachian Trail when Bobby Harrell was indicted. It was mid-afternoon before a friend told me the news, late afternoon before I worked my way through the early news coverage and looked up the relevant statute and puzzled over the bizarre email from Mr. Harrell’s spokesman that went to such great lengths to establish that none of the charges against him was a felony.
It was clear that the statute required Mr. Harrell’s suspension from the House even absent a felony charge, since one of the misconduct in office charges carries a 10-year sentence — and an attorney general’s opinion the next morning would note that some of the counts were crimes of moral turpitude, which also trigger immediate suspension.
Still, I was reading the statute in a vacuum to believe that it was up to Mr. Harrell to suspend himself, and wondering if he would openly defy that law and how that would play out, and my mind was racing through scenarios under which even a suspended former speaker could retain power: Could he be tried and exonerated before the House elects a speaker in early December? And if not, could he be elected speaker while he was still under suspension? No doubt Mr. Harrell’s mind was doing the same, given that bizarre argument about felonies and the delay in his action.
The next day brought news that Mr. Harrell had “proactively” suspended himself “because I believe it is the right decision for the South Carolina House of Representatives, its members and the people we represent,” followed shortly by what looked like another bizarre email from his spokesman. This one contained a letter from Speaker Pro Tem Jay Lucas to Mr. Harrell, thanking him for acting “upon being informed that the allegations made against you require, by law, your suspension from the House.”
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This seemed strange coming from Mr. Harrell’s spokesman because it unmasked the fraud of Mr. Harrell’s suggestion that he had voluntarily suspended himself. The letter also made it clear — as the attorney general’s opinion had done — that Mr. Harrell had no control over when or whether he was suspended or when or whether his suspension ended, by “informing you that your suspension, effective 10:35 a.m., September 11, 2014, remains in effect” until he is either convicted and removed from the House or exonerated and reinstated.
And suddenly it hit me: The person who sent that email is no longer Mr. Harrell’s spokesman. He’s Mr. Lucas’ spokesman — unless or until Mr. Lucas sees fit to replace him, as he now has the power to do. The indictment alone, it finally was clear to me, changes everything.
Mr. Lucas, not Mr. Harrell, now has the power to hire and fire the House staff. Mr. Lucas, not Mr. Harrell, now has the power to control the House’s “personnel, administration and management of facilities,” including employee salaries. Mr. Lucas even has the power to sign off on representatives’ expense reimbursements.
I don’t expect Mr. Lucas to exercise a lot of those powers before the organizational session, because there’s no guarantee he will be elected speaker, and anything he does between now and then could cost him votes. But the import of Thursday’s email was unrelated to whether Mr. Lucas or Kenny Bingham or Jimmy Merrill or someone else is elected speaker in December. The import of that email was that Bobby Harrell will not be elected speaker in December. The Harrell era is ended.
If he is exonerated, and if he wins his re-election campaign to the House, he will return to the House, but he will not return to the speakership, because South Carolina doesn’t have a speedy trial law, and prosecutors control the docket, and in any event it’s simply not practical to expect that a case of this complexity could be tried before the organizational session. So by the time the trial is ended, someone else will have been elected speaker.
Mr. Harrell was elected speaker nine years ago based on some unknowable combination of respect, friendship, gratitude for the ways he had used his power as chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee and fear for how he might use his power if he were not elected. He was re-elected every two years based on those same elements.
And now that fourth element has been stripped away. Whatever support Mr. Harrell derived from his power is gone; all that remains is personal loyalty. Even if he is exonerated, no one has to worry that he might take away their plum committee assignment if they don’t support him. No one has to worry that he might send their bills to a political graveyard or that he won’t call on them to speak at crucial points during House debate or that he will stack a conference committee against the legislation they want if they don’t support him.
The indictments also mean that any pressure that state judges might have felt to see things Mr. Harrell’s way, to bend the rules to his benefit, has evaporated along with the rest of his power.
It is terribly unfortunate that someone could lose his power based solely on indictments. It is terribly fortunate that whatever happens next will happen based on something other than the fear that many say has been a hallmark of the Harrell era.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.