Cindi Ross Scoppe

He copped a guilty plea, but former SC speaker still says he did nothing wrong

Former SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty more than two years ago to illegally using campaign funds for personal expenses.
Former SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty more than two years ago to illegally using campaign funds for personal expenses.

ONE DAY, we’ll be able to relegate Bobby Harrell to history. But he’s not the one who gets the last word on that. Last month, the former House speaker gave his first extended interview since his 2014 corruption conviction, and once again he completely mischaracterized what he did.

Mr. Harrell is no longer an elected official, so he doesn’t owe us the truth. But it’s important that we remember what the truth is, and what was so wrong with what he did, not just for the sake of history but also because the crimes he committed will be repeated by others.

The short-hand version of what got Mr. Harrell into trouble was using campaign funds to reimburse himself for flights on his private plane. That would be legal if the flights were for official or even political business. And for months, he insisted that they were. The whole matter, he insisted, boiled down to a difference of opinion with prosecutors over the legitimate use of campaign funds.

Then one day, he showed up in a courtroom and admitted that some of the flights he paid for with special-interest money were personal.

Then he walked out of the courtroom and went right back to his original story. Then he went quiet, while he served probation. Then last month, with his probation over, he was out spouting the “difference of opinion” line again. He even told Charleston’s Post and Courier he might have avoided a conviction if he’d kept better records of his flights.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Here’s how the paper described that claim: Asked if he would do anything differently, he said he wishes he’d kept a “neater log book.”

“Seriously,” he said. “I had an incredibly sloppy pilot’s log book, and I have paid dearly for that. I didn’t think then, and I don’t think now, that it warranted what has transpired over these last few years, but it is what it is.”

Now, it’s true that the Charleston Republican might have escaped investigation if he had been more forthcoming about those flights on his campaign reports. It was his refusal to detail them — he listed lump-sum payments to himself each quarter, with no details — that caught the attention of first a reporter, then a watchdog and finally the attorney general. But once the investigation was underway, “a neater log book” wouldn’t have made a difference. Unless by “neater” he means “honest.”

Because it was anything but, as Solicitor David Pascoe demonstrated at the hearing where Mr. Harrell admitted his guilt.

Mr. Pascoe described a January 2009 trip that Mr. Harrell claimed he took to Columbia and back, for which he reimbursed himself $984 from his campaign account. Investigators became suspicious when they checked the tower flight log and found only a 12-minute flight on that date. On Mr. Harrell’s own flight log, the word Columbia had been wedged in between the words Charleston and Charleston.

Additionally, an hour had been added to the flight time. That extra hour threw off the time on another part of the form that hadn’t been altered. Language describing the reason for the flight had been obliterated and replaced. When a SLED agent examined the log under a microscope, she was able to make out the original words, “test flight,” which would be consistent with a 12-minute flight from Charleston to Charleston.

SLED agents checked Mr. Harrell’s phone records and determined, based on which cell towers his conversations were pinging off of, that he was either flying to and from Columbia at 70 mph, on a path directly over I-26, or else he was driving up and down I-26 at 70 mph. Just to be clear: The first possibility is absurd. Who would go to the trouble of driving to and from an airport and then flying if the flight time was the same as the total drive time?

Investigators put together the same kind of evidence for three other fabricated trips that same year; they didn’t bother examining any records beyond 2009.

As Mr. Pascoe explained, this was not simply negligence; it was deliberate deceit. This was not simply a matter of Mr. Harrell reimbursing himself to fly to Florida on vacation — a trip Mr. Harrell called job-related because he took constituents with him. This was a man using campaign funds to pay himself for flights he never took, which in other circumstances would be called fraud. This was a man engaged in a level of mendacity that is breathtaking. This is evidence that is overwhelming. This is what Mr. Harrell continues to this day to characterize as a disagreement over the proper use of a campaign account.

He did say one thing that was accurate in this latest interview. He said the corruption investigation that has developed since his guilty plea “has almost nothing to do with what we went through.”

But that’s not to say that there’s no relationship. The charges against Sen. John Courson bear a striking resemblance to those against Mr. Harrell, though without the fabrications. Mr. Courson also is charged with using his campaign account to pay for personal expenses, by receiving checks back from his campaign consultant — a total of nearly $160,000, on 16 occasions — right after writing checks to the consultant from his campaign account.

For his sake, I hope he has better evidence than Mr. Harrell did that this is merely about a disagreement over the proper use of a campaign account.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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