The Buzz

Former House speaker must repay $113,475 in attorney fees, ethics panel rules

Former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell must repay $113,475 that he spent from his campaign account on attorneys as he tried to fend off ethics charges, the S.C. House Ethics Committee ruled Tuesday.

Harrell also must pay a $1,000 fine for providing misinformation to the committee, which will issue a public reprimand to him.

“I’m disappointed,” Harrell said after Ethics Committee members voted unanimously that their former leader must repay the money. "I don’t agree with the decision the committee made, but I do very much appreciate the committee finally giving us an opportunity to come up and state our side publicly.”

The House panel’s actions Tuesday end the Harrell saga, which included a dramatic fall from power by one of the state’s most-powerful politicians after investigations by Attorney General Alan Wilson and the State Grand Jury.

Harrell was speaker of the S.C. House for a decade before pleading guilty in 2014 to six misdemeanor charges of misusing campaign cash, including falsifying personal trips as government business. That plea deal requires Harrell to tell federal and state authorities about illegal activities of others, including lawmakers.

Harrell attorney Mark Peper told the Ethics Committee Tuesday that paying lawyers from Harrell’s campaign account was appropriate because the former speaker was under investigation for ethics allegations related to his office.

When Harrell became aware the investigation could be criminal — after the S.C. Supreme Court ruled the attorney general could continue investigating, including criminal allegations — Harrell’s attorneys advised the former speaker not to pay his attorneys with campaign money, Peper said.

From that point on, Harrell incurred additional legal expenses totaling more than $600,000, which Harrell is paying off with personal money, Peper said.

But House Ethics Committee special prosecutor Debbie Barbier said the attorney general’s office told her the Harrell investigation always was a criminal matter.

Peper said Harrell took responsibility for his actions by pleading guilty in court, including agreeing not to run for public office. “It has caused him to lose his business,” Peper said. “It’s caused his family to struggle in multiple ways.”

Of Harrell, Peper added, “He doesn’t have $113,000.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope