COLUMBIA — A state government watchdog group Thursday called on House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston to step down as speaker while an inquiry into accusations he used his office and campaign account for personal gain is ongoing.
John Crangle, the executive director of S.C. Common Cause, said the group’s board will decide whether to ask Harrell to resign his office permanently after more information is known from a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division inquiry.
Crangle said the board Thursday also delayed a decision on whether to ask state Attorney General Alan Wilson to recuse himself in a prospective Harrell investigation.
Harrell’s spokesman Greg Foster called Common Cause part of an effort to smear the House speaker.
“It is irrelevant what a biased political group pushing a long standing agenda says about this issue,” Foster said in a statement. “Speaker Harrell is in full compliance with the provisions of our state’s ethics act and no credible group has suggested otherwise. Obviously, this is just another misguided attempt by a politically motivated group to smear Speaker Harrell’s name while advancing their biased agenda in the media.”
Wilson’s office has said he will not recuse himself.
Wilson earlier this week returned a $3,500 donation from Harrell’s campaign account and another $3,500 contribution from the Palmetto Leadership Council, a committee Harrell is affiliated with. Crangle has raised questions as to whether the $3,500 contribution from Harrell to Wilson for his 2011 inaugural gala was legal.
State law bars contributions from one candidate’s campaign coffers to another candidate’s account. And Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood said this week a candidate shouldn’t use his or her campaign funds for a donation to an event such as an inaugural gala because campaign expenditures “have to bear a fairly direct relationship to a candidate’s re-election or to the office they’re holding.” Harrell’s office has disputed that assessment.
This week, Wilson’s 2010 campaign chairman said the $3,500 from Harrell for the inaugural gala was among 10 to 15 contributions for the event that were mistakenly not disclosed on Wilson’s campaign disclosure forms.
The chairman, attorney Thad Westbrook, said the campaign will file an amended disclosure form that includes the previously missing contributions.
Wilson’s move to return the contributions from Harrell and the Palmetto Leadership Council came after the Republican attorney general last week referred an ethics complaint against Harrell to SLED.
Wilson explained in a statement this week that he was returning the contributions from Harrell and the Harrell-tied group “in an abundance of caution to avoid even the slightest appearance or impression that this office could be compromised in any way.”
Wilson will be in a position to pursue further investigation or prosecution of Harrell if SLED finds evidence to pursue.
Wilson asked the law enforcement agency last week to assign an agent to conduct an initial inquiry into criminal allegations against Harrell.
Among other things, the Republican House speaker has been accused of using his campaign account and office for personal gain by the leader of the S.C. Policy Council.