A DISGRACED former Charleston legislator stands demurely in a courtroom as a judge asks whether he is indeed guilty of multiple counts of misusing campaign funds for his personal benefit. He hesitates and finally gives the “yes” that is required for the judge to accept the plea agreement that will let him avoid a trial and likely receive a much shorter sentence.
Then he leaves the courtroom and declares that he is not guilty.
This is not a column about Robert Ford, who indeed did all that on the second day of this year’s legislative session.
This is about former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, whose own crimes are quite similar to Mr. Ford’s and who, like Mr. Ford, has continued to maintain his innocence since acknowledging guilt in court.
Mr. Harrell’s protestations have been less in your face than Mr. Ford’s. But then Mr. Harrell never was the sort who would declare, right outside the courtroom: “None of the allegations are true. They was on a witch hunt. They was out to get me, and they got me. … I ain’t no damn crook.” His version — issued in writing just hours after his guilty plea and repeated in an interview last month with Charleston’s Post and Courier — is that he and the government have a “fundamental disagreement over the proper use of a campaign account to fly a private aircraft to conduct state and campaign business.”
But make no mistake: Both men either lied to a judge or else lied to the public with their audacious claims of innocence. The difference is that we all know Mr. Ford broke the law. We all know that the only place where Mr. Ford is innocent is inside his own mind — an alternate universe where he also remains a state senator, as evidenced by all those bizarre blast emails he keeps sending out identifying himself as such.
Not everyone is so sure about Mr. Harrell. That’s a testament to how smoothly he has nurtured the narrative that the criminal case against him boils down to a difference of interpretation of the law. (Mr. Ford has done likewise; it’s just that his delivery, along with those sex toys and car payments, make his efforts so laughable.) Mr. Harrell’s narrative is compelling because it plays to anti-tax and anti-government impulses: He was saving taxpayers money by using campaign funds to reimburse himself for flying his private plane on all those extra trips he had to take as House speaker, rather than dipping into the public coffers to cover the costs. What a great guy!
But it’s a narrative that wouldn’t work if people realized what he actually did.
And as long as people fail to grasp the degree of criminality — criminality that displays utter contempt for the law; criminality that the House Ethics Committee never noticed — it’s very easy for legislators to disregard how much his case illustrates the need for serious ethics reform: reform that lets independent investigators review legislators’ compliance with the ethics law, that gives them the tools to do the job and significantly increases penalties, in order to reduce lawmakers’ temptation to ignore the law.
So let’s recall just one example of what investigators discovered when they reviewed the flights for which Mr. Harrell reimbursed himself.
At the hearing where Mr. Harrell admitted his guilt, Solicitor David Pascoe walked the court through a January 2009 trip that Mr. Harrell claimed he took to Columbia and back and for which he reimbursed himself $984.
Investigators first became suspicious when they checked the tower flight log and found only a 12-minute flight on that date. On Mr. Harrell’s own flight log, the word Columbia had been wedged in between the words Charleston and Charleston. Additionally, the flight duration had been altered with the addition of an hour. That extra hour threw off the time on another part of the form that had not been altered. Language describing the reason for the flight had been obliterated and replaced, so a SLED agent examined the log under a microscope: She was able to make out the original words, “test flight,” which would be consistent with a 12-minute flight from Charleston to Charleston.
That’s pretty damning, but the evidence didn’t stop there. SLED agents checked Mr. Harrell’s phone records from that day and determined, based on which cell towers his conversations were pinging off of, that he was either flying to and from Columbia at 70 mph, on a path directly over I-26, or else he was driving up and down I-26 at 70 mph.
And if you think there is even a remote possibility that Mr. Harrell was flying, then, really, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
And if you think he simply recorded the wrong date on his campaign disclosure form, then I should add that investigators put together the same kind of evidence for three other fabricated trips that same year. Who knows if there were more; they stopped looking after they went through the 2009 reimbursements.
And if you think Mr. Harrell doctored the records, fabricating flights to justify his reimbursements after questions were raised, well, so do I.
As Mr. Pascoe explained, this was not simply negligence; it was deliberate deceit. This was not simply a matter of Mr. Harrell reimbursing himself to fly to Florida on vacation — a trip Mr. Harrell called job-related because he took constituents with him. This was a man using campaign funds to pay himself for flights he never took, which in other circumstances would be called fraud. This was a man engaged in a level of mendacity that is breathtaking. This is evidence that is overwhelming.
This is what Mr. Harrell calls “a fundamental disagreement over the proper use of a campaign account.”
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.