State Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Horry, resigned Tuesday evening in the middle of his sixth term after an investigation by the House Speaker’s office, which now appears to have become part of a criminal probe.
Hardwick was accused to sexually harassing a female House staff member, according to four lawmakers who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
A criminal investigation into a lawmaker has begun after the House Speaker’s office sent information to the S.C. Attorney General’s office. The Attorney General’s office turned over the information SLED for a preliminary investigation, spokesmen for both agencies said on Wednesday. They declined further comment.
The nature of the House’s investigation into Hardwick was not disclosed by an attorney for the House Speaker’s office. Documents will be released Thursday.
But House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, hinted about the issue involved Hardwick’s resignation in a statement released Wednesday: “Any inappropriate activity related to the men, women, and staff that serve in the House Chamber has been and will continue to be investigated thoroughly and expeditiously. Each of us have been entrusted with the opportunity to serve the public and that trust must never be called into question.”
Hardwick is innocent and will fight the sexual harassment allegations, an attorney said in a statement sent on the former lawmaker’s behalf. Hardwick would like to get back the seat he held for 10 years.
“We all know that politics can sometimes be dirty, and I am concerned that some people want to hurt Nelson,” said Henrietta Golding, a Myrtle Beach attorney with the McNair firm. “Yesterday, he resigned as a knee jerk reaction. He tried to withdraw his resignation, but he was too late. ... I am confident that when all the dust clears everyone will see that Nelson has been falsely accused.”
The investigation started after a complaint was filed with the House Clerk’s office on April 30, the Speaker’s office said.
Hardwick resigned at 5 p.m. Tuesday soon after meeting with Lucas. His resignation came just hours after taking to the floor to discuss a bill that he sponsored to expand the boundaries of the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District.
In a resignation letter submitted to Lucas, Hardwick said he was resigning immediately to “focus on my health.”
House Assistant Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, and Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, said Hardwick’s sudden resignation came as a surprise to them. They were unaware of Hardwick having any health issues.
A House Ethics Committee meeting scheduled for later Wednesday was canceled less than an hour after Hardwick resigned.
After Hardwick’s resignation letter was read in the House chamber on Wednesday, some representatives applauded.
Efforts to reach Hardwick were unsuccessful.
Hardwick, a 63-year-old engineer, was chairman of the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee until earlier this year when he decided to take a seat on the budget-writing Way and Means Committee.
Hardwick was known for run-ins with some people who testified before the agriculture committee.
“I often noticed disrespect on Hardwick’s part for citizens testifying before his committee, myself included,’’ environmentalist Shelley Robbins said earlier this year.
Only one of the six bills that he sponsored this session won full passage in the House. Last year, he sponsored a bill that would limit the ability for South Carolinians to sue polluters, which passed the House but failed to get a final Senate vote.
The 2011-12 session was his most productive where eight bills he sponsored became law — including stiffening human trafficking penalties and new regulations on abandoned boats.
“Mr. Hardwick is one of the most honest and loyal men whom I have met and one of the hardest working members of the Legislature,” State Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, wrote in an endorsement letter in 2012. “Our area and our county would be injured if we did not have him represent us.”
A special election will be held to fill Hardwick’s unexpired term.
Filing for the seat will run from May 29-June 8, the S.C. Election Commission said. A primary will be held on July 28 and the special general election on Sept. 15.
Hardwick is the second House member to resign in the past six months.
Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, stepped down in December, a month after winning a fifth term.
He cited wanting to spend more time with his family and new leadership in the House. Crawford was an ally of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican who resigned last fall after pleading guilty to campaign spending irregularities.
Staff writer Sammy Fretwell contributed