Deleted portions of a 42-page SLED investigative report released Tuesday on former House Speaker Bobby Harrell raise questions about who might be other possible targets of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Approximately nine pages – almost one-fourth of the report – were deleted. Officials familiar with the full report declined to say exactly who and what the deleted portions concern.
But officials did confirm the deleted matter – which may include both names of possible suspects and surrounding questionable circumstances – involves additional matters that SLED is still investigating.
“The ongoing investigation involves issues separate and apart from the Harrell case,” SLED Chief Mark Keel said on Tuesday, declining further comment.
Meanwhile, 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who was responsible for prosecuting Harrell and securing his guilty plea in October, told The State newspaper late Tuesday afternoon that he had discussed the matters in the deleted portions of the SLED report with state Attorney General Alan Wilson two months ago.
“There were matters I discovered during the Harrell investigation – things I thought the state should look into – that I brought to the attention of the attorney general back in early October,” Pascoe said.
“I believe that my jurisdiction only deals with the prosecution of Bobby Harrell, but obviously – the investigation of Harrell can lead to other things,” said Pascoe, stressing the deleted material concerned “other things.”
The SLED report released Tuesday was finished almost a year ago – on Dec. 5, 2012 – so it is unclear what Pascoe discovered in the SLED report that Wilson didn’t already know about. The SLED report was turned over to Wilson after it was completed.
Wilson made no statement about the ongoing investigation Tuesday afternoon, but in answer to questions from The State, a spokesman indicated Wilson regards the ongoing investigation as active and “has not recused himself.”
Moreover, “Once appropriate, this office would fully support SLED’s decision to release the full, unredacted version once such release would no longer interfere with prospective law enforcement review,” Wilson’s spokesman, Hayley Thrift, said.
John Crangle, president of Common Cause of South Carolina, said he hoped the ongoing investigation doesn’t involve any of Wilson’s political associates. Wilson has “a wide network of friends, in the General Assembly, in the National Guard and among his father’s circle.” Alan Wilson is an officer with the National Guard and is the son of longtime U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.
If Wilson does have a conflict, he should remove any spin-off investigations from the Harrell matter from his office entirely and let an outside prosecutor take over, Crangle said.
Meanwhile, the visible portions of Tuesday’s report contained fresh details about some of the six ethics-related charges to which Harrell pleaded guilty in October, spelling out how Harrell did such things as using his campaign funds to pay himself for a mix of official and apparently personal trips in his private airplane, personal expenses and passing campaign money to employees.
The SLED report examined some 1,054 expenditures totaling more than $1 million from February 2009 through December 2012. Of those, some 285 expenditures lacked bills or invoices. The four SLED agents – Kevin Baker, Michael Greene, Brian Bolchoz and David Williams – had to wade through thickets of ledger books, invoices, flight logs and credit card statements to produce their report.
Much of the report indicated nothing more than undocumented record-keeping. Much information that led to Harrell’s indictments and guilty pleas in October was related to information uncovered in August, after Wilson had turned the investigation over to Pascoe, who continued to use Wilson’s investigators.
Efforts to reach Harrell and his attorney, Bart Daniel, for comment were unsuccessful.
Here are some of the report’s highlights:
• Harrell used some $5,000 in campaign funds to pay a 2010 trip with his wife in his personal airplane to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. Harrell provided no documentation indicating what the state business purpose of the trip was. However, Harrell – apparently on his own and before the SLED investigation began – reimbursed his campaign account the $5,000 for the Wizarding World trip in September 2012, the SLED report indicated.
• Harrell deducted airplane expenses from his income taxes. The Attorney General’s Office was reviewing those deductions as of December, 2013. No findings have been made public.
• Harrell would get reimbursed a lump sum from his campaign account expenses that included possible personal expenses. For example, in 2009, Harrell was reimbursed $22,008, for expenses that included a trip in his airplane to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “He flew constituents to a baseball tournament in Florida and said the trip was to see and be seen by his constituents,” the report said.
• The report noted that Harrell gave conflicting statements to officials about his finances. For example, Harrell told the House Ethics Committee at one point that he didn’t have any documentation to support why some $970 worth of expenses paid for with an American Express card were paid for out of his campaign account. However, agents easily obtained the original American Express statements and found they were for such things a hotel bill, restaurant and bar tabs in San Francisco.
• Although SLED agents had access to thousands of pages of Harrell expense records, and Harrell cooperated with the investigation to a significant extent, they still were not able to determine how Harrell spent all his campaign money. “As of this report, SLED agents have not been able to determine how these funds ($13,008) were spent,” the report notes.
• Harrell sometimes got reimbursed twice. In late 2009, for example, Harrell had a payment of $4,149 from his campaign account for various legislative-related trips, but he also had a payment for the same amount from the state of South Carolina, indicating “Speaker Harrell was reimbursed twice for the same expenses,” the report said.
For Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, a limited government watchdog group, the release of the report was a sweet moment but a long time coming.
Landress was one of the people who in 2013 persuaded Attorney General Alan Wilson to request a SLED investigation of Harrell. She also wrote a letter with detailed allegations against Harrell, some of which were the basis of the charges Harrell ultimately pleaded guilty to.
The SLED report noted that her letter of complaint to Wilson sparked the investigation that led to Harrell’s guilty pleas. The letter, written in February 2013, had charged Harrell with engaging in an “ongoing abuse of power that appears to violate multiple S.C. ethics laws.”
In an interview Tuesday, Landess said Harrell’s investigation was “a proud moment for the state of South Carolina.” So often, it has been federal authorities who have taken action on public corruption by state officials, she said.
“We were right to push for an investigation,” she said. “It’s pretty clear it was warranted. It was also clear there was a lot of deliberate hiding of things by the former speaker, and the SLED report confirmed that.”
Landess said she believed one matter redacted from the SLED report was her concerns about a Harrell political action committee called the Palmetto Leadership Council. For some years, Harrell used hundreds of thousands of dollars in that PAC as a legal slush fund to give campaign contributions to fellow House members, Landess said.
Critics assailed the practice as a technique Harrell used to help him keep power in the S.C. House. But under S.C. law, Harrell was doing nothing wrong.
The report had seven sections, but only five sections were visible to the public. The final two sections were deleted from public view.
The report was released during a holiday week to various news media organizations around noon Tuesday, pursuant to their requests under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
Harrell, a Republican who represented Charleston County, pleaded guilty to using his campaign funds for personal use and other charges. One major charge to which Harrell pleaded guilty involved his fudging of facts on expense accounts.
Under terms of his October plea agreement, Harrell gave up his speaker’s post, resigned from the House of Representatives and agreed to pay $130,000 in fines. He also agreed to tell government investigators about any criminal activities involving other House members or other people he might know about.
Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning gave Harrell six years in prison – one year for each charge – but suspended them if Harrell successfully serves three years on probation. While on probation, Harrell can’t have guns or leave the state without permission from authorities and cannot run for office.
During Harrell’s guilty plea hearing on Oct. 23, prosecutor Pascoe said his investigation had located evidence in August that caught Harrell in blatant falsehoods about bogus legislative trips made in his personal plane. In one case, Harrell falsified flight logs about a nonexistent round trip from Charleston to Columbia and back, Pascoe told Manning.
Since it costs far more to operate a plane than a car, Harrell would create a false business-related trip in his airplane, then bill his campaign account for hundreds of dollars more than if he had taken the same trip by car – which Harrell in fact did on more than one occasion, Pascoe told Manning.
Last summer, Wilson turned the investigation over to Pascoe – who works out of Dorchester, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties – after Harrell’s attorneys accused Wilson of a conflict in the case and it appeared possible a judge might disqualify Wilson as prosecutor. Pascoe was able to finish what Landess, Wilson and SLED had started.