Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Harrell’s off the hook, but other SC legislators might not be

Then-SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell arrives for what would be his last day presiding over the lower chamber.
Then-SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell arrives for what would be his last day presiding over the lower chamber. gmelendez@thestate.com

THE LAST TIME WE checked in with convicted former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, he seemed to be back in trouble, with a new SLED investigation underway into what looked like a clear violation of the terms of his plea agreement.

But after talking with state officials and with Mr. Harrell’s attorney, First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe determined that a clerical error had caused money from Mr. Harrell’s campaign account to be credited toward his court-ordered restitution instead of being forfeited to the state, as his plea agreement required. There doesn’t appear to have been any intent on Mr. Harrell’s part to violate the agreement, Mr. Pascoe told me recently.

Read my column on the larger take-away from the campaign-funds mixup

That’s good news, because nobody benefits by having to send a white-collar criminal to jail, as the terms of his sentence might have required if he had deliberately tried to use campaign funds instead of personal funds to pay restitution related to the six corruption charges to which he pleaded guilty.

Better news is that what has looked for months like a dormant if not deceased investigation into allegations of further corruption at the State House is back on.

There was widespread speculation after Mr. Harrell’s guilty plea that many more indictments were to come. Such speculation is endemic to legislative types, but two other factors gave it legs: a provision in Mr. Harrell’s plea agreement that required him to cooperate with any additional investigations, and a SLED report that was heavily redacted in ways that suggested it contained evidence of crimes by other lawmakers.

From the archives: SLED report on Harrell suggests there are other targets

Each month that passed without any new indictments produced growing grumbling from those who are convinced that Mr. Harrell’s corruption was part of a larger problem — and growing relief on the part of some lawmakers.

Now it appears that both the grumbling and the relief were premature. Correspondence released last month by Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office suggests that police have been investigating other lawmakers since even before Mr. Harrell’s guilty plea, and SLED might have given Mr. Pascoe new evidence within the past month.

You might recall that Mr. Wilson tapped Mr. Pascoe to take over the Harrell investigation as an end run around Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning, who had essentially shut down Mr. Wilson’s work. As Mr. Wilson explained to Mr. Pascoe at the time, “the State Grand Jury investigation has been stopped dead in its tracks” by the judge’s unprecedented refusal to reauthorize the investigative body at the end of its term.

Judges can’t shut down corruption investigations any more, under new law passed in response to Harrell probe

Once the Harrell indictments were secured, Mr. Pascoe and Mr. Wilson turned their attention to other legislators whose names had come up during the SLED investigation. The night before the Harrell arraignment, the two discussed meeting to figure out how to proceed. And just hours after the arraignment, Mr. Pascoe wrote to Mr. Wilson that he had seen something in the SLED report that “should be looked into with regard to any corruption probe on the legislature.” Who and what that something involved was redacted from the emails the attorney general released.

The next day, Mr. Wilson sent an email to Chief Deputy Attorney General John McIntosh asking him to take charge of the investigation that Mr. Pascoe suggested because “there might be inherent conflicts between myself and members of the house referenced in the email.” That was in early October.

Flash forward: Last month, Mr. McIntosh wrote to SLED Chief Mark Keel asking him to send this new investigation to Mr. Pascoe “for a prosecutive decision” once it was completed. A week later, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Creighton Waters wrote to tell Mr. Pascoe that Mr. McIntosh had decided to have the report sent to the solicitor instead of himself “out of an abundance of caution.”

Mr. Pascoe won’t discuss the new investigation other than to say that he has met with SLED agents to get up to speed on what has been uncovered in the past 10 months; there’s no way to tell what, if anything, could happen or when.

Mr. Pascoe told Charleston’s Post and Courier that he was surprised by Mr. Waters’ letter, even though it implied he already knew at least about Mr. Wilson’s recusal from the matter. I’m told that he was irritated by the surprise. I’m told also that Mr. Wilson’s office long has been irritated with Mr. Pascoe for dropping three charges against Mr. Harrell in return for his guilty plea to the other six charges, which involved converting campaign funds to personal use.

Precisely what is going on between the two offices is very fuzzy, and it might turn out to be nothing more than petty jousting between two elected officials who worked together to bring down one of the most powerful politicians in our state. Two elected officials who should recognize, by the way, that neither could have gotten the job done without the other.

We can all hope that the jousting — petty or not — will not keep the two of them from working together as necessary to see the current investigation to its appropriate conclusion, whatever that might be. If there’s no credible evidence of corruption beyond Mr. Harrell, we need to know it. If there is credible evidence of additional violations, it needs to be pursued vigorously.

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

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