Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Bizarre? Desperate? Brazen? Bobby Harrell must be back

Bobby Harrell was all smiles on what turned out to be his last day presiding over the SC House, in August 2014. The former speaker pleaded guilty that fall to criminal ethics charges.
Bobby Harrell was all smiles on what turned out to be his last day presiding over the SC House, in August 2014. The former speaker pleaded guilty that fall to criminal ethics charges. gmelendez@thestate.com

THE LATEST — and we hope upon hope final — chapter in the Bobby Harrell saga is bizarre and desperate and brazen. Which is to say that it’s like pretty much every other chapter in the Icarian fall of the former House speaker.

The bizarre and desperate and brazen part is not the House Ethics Committee’s unanimous decision to reprimand Mr. Harrell, fine him for lying to the panel and order him to repay his campaign fund $113,000 that he used to fight criminal ethics charges. His criminal conviction requires the $113,000 to be forfeited to the state.

This might have surprised people who doubt the committee’s willingness to make tough calls, and it was encouraging, since the Senate seems determined not to let an independent entity take over the job of investigating legislators for non-criminal ethics violations. But not bizarre or desperate or brazen.

What was bizarre, desperate and brazen was Mr. Harrell’s last-gasp defense against the charge that he misused campaign contributions to pay attorneys to defend him against earlier charges that he had misused campaign contributions on personal travel. Pause. Digest.

From the time questions arose about using campaign funds to pay his attorneys, Mr. Harrell has said that those attorneys told him it was OK. But when he appeared before the House Ethics Committee this month to appeal its order to repay the money, his new attorney added a new claim: that Mr. Harrell’s original attorneys had contacted First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe and the State Ethics Commission before he spent the money, and that both said the attorney fees constituted “a permissible expenditure from his campaign account.”

The committee was struck by the fact that neither Mr. Harrell nor his original attorney, Bart Daniel, nor his new attorney, Mark Peper, had brought up this claim earlier. It also was struck by the fact that Mr. Peper offered no affidavits or other evidence to support the claim. All he brought were his own “unsubstantiated assertions,” which the panel said in its order were “not admissible evidence.”

Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that the Harrell legal team actually did reach out to the Ethics Commission and Mr. Pascoe.

What strikes me about this is the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the argument — i.e., by the Harrellism of the argument.

Mr. Harrell, you might recall, argued for nine months that no one except the House Ethics Committee had any right to investigate his compliance with the ethics law. This is the man whose friends in the House tried to change the state law and the state constitution to prevent him from being held to account by anyone other than his friends on the House Ethics Committee. This is the man who put a Circuit Court judge in a position of undermining his own credibility by embracing the bizarre argument that the state attorney general had no right to investigate allegations of misspending against the House speaker. This is the man who put the state Supreme Court in a position of damaging its credibility by going so far out of its way to try to accommodate his absurd argument — though fortunately, the argument turned out to be a bridge too far for our justices.

And now he’s telling the House Ethics Committee that he had every right to use campaign funds to pay his criminal defense attorneys because he received permission from a prosecutor? And the State Ethics Commission? And not from that one entity that he spent so much time, money and energy arguing had sole authority over him?

Now, I suspect Mr. Pascoe had the authority to bring criminal charges against Mr. Harrell for using his campaign funds to pay those criminal defense attorneys. But Mr. Harrell didn’t even know Mr. Pascoe was involved in the case until after he had paid all $113,000 from his campaign account; there would have been no reason to ask his opinion back when the speaker was deciding how to pay his attorneys. And there never were any circumstances under which the State Ethics Commission’s opinion would have been relevant, since it has no jurisdiction over legislators. Mr. Harrell saw to that while he was speaker.

There was one thing about Mr. Harrell’s latest Ethics Committee encounter that was neither desperate nor brazen, although it seems at first blush to be out of character. Mr. Harrell agreed not to appeal the decision. Look closely at that agreement, though, and it becomes quite rational: In return, the committee promised to “not seek further discovery in this matter.”

As House Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham explained, “If the appeal was hanging out there, we would have had to build a very complicated record for the appeal — an exercise neither side wanted to pursue.” Mr. Bingham would only say that it would have been expensive for all parties, but I can’t help imagining that it also might have involved Mr. Harrell and his family being deposed — and who knows what else, since the committee has in its possession the complete SLED investigative file that never has been made public.

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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