Panel refuses to take complaint

A University of South Carolina law student attempted on Wednesday to file with the House Ethics Committee a complaint involving House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s campaign spending.A committee research assistant refused to take the complaint, citing a state rule that prohibits the House committee from accepting a complaint within 50 days of an election.Political watchdogs and tea party activists have little faith in the six-member House committee to handle any future complaints involving Harrell’s spending.“They don’t have a modicum of independence,” said Talbert Black, founder of Palmetto Liberty, a conservative political action committee in Columbia. Harrell makes campaign contributions to five of the six lawmakers on the panel through his political action committee.Harry Kibler, with the Greenville-based RINO Hunt, said “there’s no way to get past the appearance of impropriety there.”“How in the world can citizens ever trust that system?” he said.Renee Dudley

House Speaker Bobby Harrell told The Associated Press he “probably will be more specific” on finance forms detailing reimbursements from his campaign account when he uses his personal credit card and pays bills online.

Harrell also said he moved $23,000 back into his campaign account because he couldn’t account for the expenditures.

Harrell has reimbursed himself more than $325,000 from his campaign war chest since 2008. For four weeks, The Post and Courier has repeatedly asked Harrell’s office whether he could produce receipts and itemize expenditures showing how the money was spent. Harrell has failed to provide the newspaper with the documents.

The newspaper published a story Monday about the reimbursements, many of which covered the speaker’s costs for using his private plane for “official legislative trips and politically related travel,” Harrell’s office said.

On Tuesday, Harrell showed AP the documents — credit card and phone bills, hotel invoices and pay stubs — that he said back up his assertions.

He would not allow copies to be made, saying the documents also contained personal spending and information. He also said they were not public documents under state law.

“The way I’ve been doing it is within the law,” Harrell told the AP. “Going forward, I probably will be more specific.”

The Post and Courier could not reach Harrell for comment Tuesday and Wednesday.

State politicians must maintain such documentation for four years to prove they are using campaign money for political rather than personal spending.

Harrell, speaker since 2005, told the newspaper that all his expenses are legitimate. But without the required documentation, it is impossible to confirm that Harrell spent the money properly.

S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender said Harrell “seems to be correct” that he doesn’t have to publicly release the financial documents. He said he sees no obligation in the ethics law for a candidate or candidate committee to do anything with receipts other than retain them for the statutory period.

But without voluntary disclosure, Bender said, there is no way for the public to be assured that the bulk of the reimbursements were appropriate. The public might have difficulty accepting a “trust me” response, he said.

He called on the General Assembly to introduce legislation requiring expenditures listed on quarterly statements to be supported by receipts.

Last week, Harrell put nearly $23,000 back into his campaign account, acknowledging in a letter to the House Ethics Committee that a review determined that he didn’t have records for that amount in withdrawals.

While he believes the expenses were legitimate, he said, he doesn’t have the documents to support them.

He attributed the missing records to moving an office in Charleston in 2011.

More disclosure

Tea party activists say Harrell’s decision to show campaign spending records to the AP does not constitute full public disclosure and fails to meet requirements of state law.

“It’s just a dodge,” said Karen Martin, an organizer for the Spartanburg Tea Party. “What is his intention for maneuvering around the place where the questions were asked?”

The founder of a conservative political action committee said Harrell should make the records available for the public so they can tally the receipts.

“If everything is above-board, I think he’d be quick to show that to everyone,” said Talbert Black, founder of Palmetto Liberty in Columbia. “He’s obviously trying to deflect the pressure for full disclosure. He needs to make those open and available to the public so we can see and tally $326,000 worth of receipts.”

Ashley Landess, executive director of the S.C. Policy Council, a libertarian think tank, also said she will not be satisfied until the spending records are available for everyone.

On Monday, Landess called on S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson to probe the matter.

Vague descriptions

Harrell’s reasons for the spending were largely generic, such as “legislative travel” and “conference fees.” Others were for items such as “staff Christmas,” which Harrell explained to AP was gifts for staff.

The vague descriptions brought about accusations that the Charleston Republican couldn’t account for hundreds of thousands of dollars taken from his campaign.

Some of Harrell’s fellow politicians — including Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, formerly the state Senate president — had pressured the speaker to release spending records.

S.C. Rep. Ralph Norman, a York Republican, reiterated his call for disclosure.

“As our leader, he’s got to be pristine,” said Norman, who unsuccessfully ran against Harrell for speaker in 2010. “He’s got to set the gold standard when it comes to disclosure.”

Harrell has not faced strong opposition in years, and with his name recognition, he doesn’t have to spend tons of money to win re-election. Still, he has raised $470,000 in the last two years, and has more than $144,000 available, according to his latest campaign finance report.

State law allows campaign donations to be spent on campaigning or official duties, which are broad for Harrell because of his leadership role.

Associated Press writer Seanna Adcox and Post and Courier reporters Renee Dudley and Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.