Crime & Courts

SC Speaker Harrell indicted for misconduct in office, ethics violations

After months of trying to shut down an investigation into his use of campaign money, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell was indicted Wednesday on nine charges, including illegally using campaign money for his personal expenses, filing false campaign disclosure reports and misconduct in office.

It was the first time in memory that a sitting House speaker has been indicted. A Richland County grand jury issued the nine separate, single-count indictments.

Shortly thereafter, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and several House members said Harrell should resign as speaker.

Haley would not elaborate on why she thought her fellow Republican should step aside. But the pair have quarreled for years, dating back to her days as a state representative from Lexington when, she said, Harrell stripped her of a choice committee assignment.

Harrell, 58, has been regarded as an especially powerful speaker, controlling House members’ committee appointments, and having strong ties to the state’s judges and justices, who are elected by the General Assembly.

According to the indictments, the Charleston Republican used more than $90,000 in campaign contributions to pay the expenses of his personal airplane and another $70,286 to pay the salary of an unnamed administrative assistant who works for his State Farm insurance business. To cover up his improper expenses, Harrell created records of flights that he said were for state business when the trips “did not occur or were personal,” according to one charge.

In all, Harrell paid himself “campaign funds totaling approximately $294,335.22 in untaxed income,” according to that charge.

In a statement, Harrell indicated he will fight the charges.

“I have said all along that I have never intentionally violated any law, and I still strongly believe that statement to be accurate,” Harrell said.

"In no way have I ever benefited personally or financially from travel reimbursements from my campaign account. In fact, I have regularly used the privately raised funds from my campaign account to pay for official state travel instead of passing that cost along to taxpayers,” Harrell said.

“Similarly, I have often used my own airplane, at no cost to the taxpayers, for official state travel when it would have been completely justifiable to have used the taxpayer-funded state plane instead. If over the course of four years, I mistakenly wrote down the wrong date on a handful of items, that is something that can easily be addressed."

But the indictments indicated there was little, if any, middle ground.

“The Defendant concealed this pattern of unlawful payments by falsely claiming that they were for campaign and official House of Representatives related purposes,” according to one charge.

In trying to conceal his wrongdoing, Harrell altered entries in his pilot’s log book, “misinforming law officers about the purposes” of some of his campaign expenses, the indictment said.

The charges against Harrell all are misdemeanors. However, one of the indictments carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail, said John Crangle, president of S.C. Common Cause, a citizens’ watchdog group.

“That 10-year sentence means that he has to be suspended from his office,” said Crangle, who with the S.C. Policy Council brought allegations about Harrell’s spending to state Attorney General Alan Wilson in early 2013. Wilson turned the matter over to SLED for investigation.

The S.C. House clerk’s office was reviewing the indictments Wednesday to see if Harrell must step aside while the charges are pending. If so, Harrell could suspend himself or be suspended by the person next in the House’s chain of command, House Speaker Pro Tempore Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, the House clerk’s office said.

The indictments seemed to take Harrell and his lawyers — Bart Daniel and Gedney Howe, both of Charleston — by surprise.

In recent weeks, Harrell has been talking to other House members about the upcoming Legislative session. Despite the legal cloud over his head, Harrell was expected to win re-election as speaker, a post that he has held since 2005, making him one of the state’s powerful politicians.

The indictments follow a months-long, historic legal fight between Harrell and Attorney General Wilson.

In January, Wilson announced he was turning a completed confidential SLED report on Harrell’s finances over to the secret State Grand Jury. Out of public view, Harrell and his lawyers then began a legal drive to disqualify Wilson as prosecutor and transfer the investigation to the House Ethics Committee. There, Harrell’s colleagues in the GOP-controlled House could treat the allegations as civil matters, carrying no criminal penalties.

After The State newspaper revealed Harrell’s secret push to shut down Wilson’s criminal investigation, Circuit Judge Casey Manning ruled Wilson’s investigation was baseless and ordered the State Grand Jury disbanded. Wilson appealed that decision to the S.C. Supreme Court.

In July, the Supreme Court ruled the attorney general did have the authority to conduct a criminal investigation into the speaker’s campaign finances. However, the Supreme Court also ordered the question about whether Wilson should be disqualified from the case sent back to Manning for a secret hearing.

At that point, Wilson decided to hand the case off to 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe as an independent prosecutor.

Few in South Carolina anticipated the speed with which Pascoe then moved or that he would take the case before a county grand jury. Relying on the already completed SLED report, Pascoe made a secret appearance before a Richland County grand jury this week and convinced it to issue nine indictments Wednesday.

Throughout the months-long legal odyssey, Harrell loudly has proclaimed his innocence, saying he has done nothing wrong. He described the investigation — by a fellow Republican — as politically motivated and repeatedly called for public release of a thick SLED investigative report into his use of campaign money.

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, Pascoe released a written statement of the charges, and a reminder the indictments are “mere accusations” and Harrell is presumed innocent.

Pascoe said a date for a bond hearing has not been set, adding Harrell formally will be charged at that time. Pascoe said he will not discuss the case but will notify the media in advance of the hearing.

Staff writer Andy Shain contributed.


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