The five Republican members of the 10-member House Ethics Committee — which House Speaker Bobby Harrell wants to decide allegations against him — have received some $13,000 in campaign contributions from a political action committee associated with the Charleston Republican.
Those committee members, who have received contributions from the Palmetto Leadership Council PAC, include Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. In 2008, 2010 and 2012, Bingham received $1,000 contributions each election cycle from the Palmetto Leadership Council.
Asked Wednesday if the money he has received from the Harrell-associated PAC would influence his judgment if the allegations against Harrell came before his committee, Bingham said, “Just because you have a contribution, it has no effect on how I vote, and we vote every single day.”
Bingham said he has not taken any money from the Palmetto Leadership Council since he became ethics chairman in early 2012. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but perceptions do matter.”
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However, the head of a good-government group said it is preposterous to have House members who have received campaign contributions from the Palmetto Leadership Council sit in judgment on Harrell.
“There’s no way in the world members of the House Ethics Committee can act objectively in matters involving Bobby Harrell,” said John Crangle, executive director of S.C. Common Cause. “This is like asking a church council to put the pope on trial. It’s not going to happen.”
Earlier this week, a circuit court judge ordered South Carolina’s attorney general to halt a state grand jury investigation into allegations against Harrell and send those allegations to the House Ethics Committee. The judge said the Ethics Committee is the proper venue and that attorney general Alan Wilson lacks jurisdiction.
Bingham defended that committee Wednesday, saying it is more impartial than ever these days. Two years ago, the panel was made up of five Republicans and one Democrat. Today, it has five Republican and five Democratic members.
“We didn’t believe the old way was a good way to have the committee, because it was lopsided with members of one party,” Bingham said. “Ethics should not be about partisanship.”
A Harrell spokesman, Greg Foster, said that while Harrell raises money for the Palmetto Leadership Council and has been used in its promotional literature, the speaker doesn’t tell the group where to make donations. In recent years, the council has contributed to upward of 100 Republican legislative House, Senate and statewide candidates.
“The Palmetto Leadership Council is a conservative, pro-business organization that Speaker Harrell very much supports,” Foster said. “He doesn’t run the organization, and doesn’t have authority to direct funds.”
Like Bingham, three other Republican members of the House Ethics Committee — Reps. Tommy Pope, R-York; Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester; and Mike Pitts, R-Laurens — said campaign contributions don’t influence them.
“I’m very comfortable I can be fair,” said Pope, a former state prosecutor. “My father, when he was sheriff, when he received donations, used to say he was grateful. But he was not going to enforce the law any differently.”
Horne said money from the Palmetto Leadership Council “has no bearing whatsoever” on her ability to be fair. “I take my job very seriously on the Ethics Committee. I was elected by members of the body to follow the law and to apply the law and do the job they elected me to do.”
Pitts said, “I’ve taken money from both sides on more than one issue, and it never has influenced my vote.”
The culture of the S.C. House, Pitts said, puts a premium on honesty. In debate over tort reform years ago, for example, Pitts said he voted against the state’s trial lawyers. But their group later gave him a campaign contribution because he had been honest with them during the debate, he said.
As for taking money from the Palmetto Leadership Council and possibly having to judge Harrell, Pitts said, “This is a hard question, but, unfortunately, it takes money to run campaigns,” adding donations have “never, in the past, influenced my vote, and it wouldn’t this time.”
In 2010 and 2012, Pitts and Pope received $1,000 each election cycle from the Palmetto Leadership Council. In 2008, 2010 and 2012, Horne received $1,000 each election cycle.
Rep. G. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, the fifth Republican House Ethics Committee member, received $1,000 each election cycle from the Palmetto Leadership Council in 2008, 2010 and 2012. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday or Thursday.
‘No way they can be objective’
Common Cause’s Crangle is not buying the Ethics Committee members’ protestations that they can be impartial.
Ethics Committee members are like jurors in a civil or criminal trial. But unlike jurors, lawmakers who sit in judgment are not vetted to ensure impartiality, Crangle said. “There’s no way they can be objective.”
In a civil or criminal court, “If you have something like a friendship or a business relationship, blood relation or go to the same church, one side or the other will always try to get that person off the jury,” Crangle said. “It has the appearance and the substance of lack of impartiality.”
Also, while Harrell does not appoint Ethics Committee members, he retains some clout over those committee members, Crangle said. Harrell does appoint members to all House committees except for Ethics and the House Operations and Management Committee; The body of the full House elects members to those two committees.
For example, Harrell appointed GOP Ethics Committee members Bingham, Pitts and Smith to the Ways and Means Committee, the House’s most plum assignment since it gets to have a major role in deciding how the state will spend $7 billion in general fund revenue. Also, Harrell appointed Horne and Pope to the House Judiciary Committee, a plum assignment for an attorney —like Horne and Pope — since it determines state laws.
Two years ago, state Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, publicly questioned whether Ethics Committee members should accept contributions from the Palmetto Leadership Council. The group had given money to state Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland, then on the Ethics Committee. Bernstein ran against Brady and beat her.
“My stance has not changed,” Bernstein said. “You put yourself in a precarious situation. ... It’s not as if they couldn’t be impartial, but I think they would want to remove that appearance, which would be a potential conflict.”
Harrell has been the target of a criminal investigation by SLED, attorney general Wilson’s office and the state grand jury, at Wilson’s direction, since January.
The initial allegations against Harrell, filed by a public policy group that advocates libertarian political stances, include that Harrell converted campaign money to his personal use and used his office for personal benefit.
Harrell has denied doing anything improper.
Earlier this week, after two court hearings, Harrell’s lawyers succeeded in convincing a circuit judge to order Wilson to disband the grand jury. Judge Casey Manning also ordered the allegations against Harrell be transferred to the House Ethics Committee.
Wilson, who has said in open court the ongoing investigation was probing alleged criminal matters involving Harrell, said he will continue his investigation while appealing Manning’s order to the S.C. Supreme Court.
He has turned over no material to the Ethics Committee. And he has not yet filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. He has 10 days to file a notice that he will appeal.
Last year’s SLED investigation of Harrell, which produced a report that Wilson decided warranted a state grand jury investigation, took 10 months. Now, prosecutors and full-time investigators are working with the grand jury. That jury — made up of citizens with no ties to Harrell — has subpoena power, allowing it to order witness testimony and the production of evidence.
The Ethics Committee doesn’t normally look at matters as complex as the allegations involving Harrell. It has no full-time investigators or prosecutors, though it has the authority to hire them.
Under the committee’s rules, it takes a majority of those present and voting to advance a matter. That means the committee’s five Republican members could block any action that its five Democratic members wanted to take on Harrell. It also requires a majority vote to issue subpoenas, something that happens only infrequently, Bingham said.
Since early 2012, the Ethics Committee has fined some 150 lawmakers and House candidates for late or unfiled campaign-disclosure forms. Fines range from $100 to $5,100, with slightly more than half being $100. It also has issued more than 90 public letters of reprimand to those who haven’t paid their fines.
Contributions by Palmetto Leadership Council to House Ethics Committee members
Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, $3,000: $1,000 each election cycle in 2008, 2010 and 2012
G. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, $3,000: $1,000 in 2008, 2010 and 2012
Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester, $3,000: $1,000 in 2008, 2010 and 2012
Michael Pitts, R-Laurens, $2,000: $1,000 in 2010 and 2012
Tommy Pope, R-York, $2,000: $1,000 in 2010 and 2012
Zero contributions for Democrats:
David Weeks, D-Sumter
Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville
Elizabeth Munnerlyn, D-Marlboro
Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg
Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston
SOURCE: State Ethics Commission