— S.C. Democratic lawmakers typically have little hesitation in bashing Republican officials and their policies.

Harrell probe timeline

Sept. 24, 2012: The Post and Courier publishes a report detailing how Bobby Harrell reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign account since 2008, much of it for flights on his private plane. Harrell does not allow the newspaper to view receipts or itemized invoices accounting for the spending.

Sept. 26, 2012: Harrell meets with an Associated Press reporter and produces documents — credit card and phone bills, hotel invoices and pay stubs — he says back up the spending. Harrell also tells the AP he has moved $23,000 back into his campaign account because he couldn’t account for the expenditures.

Oct. 9, 2012: S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson releases a statement saying the House Ethics Committee must have the first opportunity to investigate Harrell. Wilson says it is premature for his office to ask the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate Harrell. “The process must proceed as prescribed by state law,” Wilson says.

Mid-October 2012: Harrell’s office releases a formal explanation for how much his plane costs to operate, saying the speaker reimbursed himself less than the fair market value of his flights. Harrell’s accounting of how he paid himself back raises questions about the accuracy of the reimbursements and whether the money helped him subsidize some of the cost of plane ownership.

Fall 2012: Harrell’s campaign sends out a direct mail piece ahead of the November election claiming he is being attacked unfairly. “Why is Bobby Being Attacked by the Liberal Media? Because he is providing conservative leadership in SC.” Harrell’s mailer carries similar themes to a newsletter he posted on his website and sent to supporters earlier in the fall.

Winter 2012-13: Harrell shields his flight records from public view using a Federal Aviation Administration-approved program.

Jan. 22, 2013: The S.C. Policy Council, a limited-government think tank, releases emails and correspondence to reporters dating back to 2006 when Harrell was seeking state approval to begin operating his drug-repackaging company. The group raises questions about whether Harrell sought or received special treatment for the company, which Harrell denies.

FEB. 8, 2013: The Post and Courier publishes a report detailing a $23,000 payment by a political action committee affiliated with Harrell to advertising firm Rawle Murdy. In its report to the State Ethics Commission, the PAC included a $23,000 payment to Rawle Murdy in October, describing it as an election expense. That description raised eyebrows among opponents of the project to complete Interstate 526, because Rawle Murdy rarely does electoral work. The firm worked to push the completion of the interstate. Rawle Murdy President Bruce Murdy acknowledges that he did work for the PAC, but would not say what sort of work he did, referring such questions to the PAC. The group does not respond to requests for comment, and its website is no longer available.

Feb. 8-9, 2013: The Post and Courier and the Policy Council’s reporting arm publish reports based on records showing a group of state and pharmacy officials who expressed concerns that Harrell used his political power as he sought to help his company. The records were obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. The newspaper also reported that, based on an email from a former state official, Harrell’s former legislative chief of staff played a role in 2006 when the Charleston Republican was seeking approval for the drug repackaging business.

Feb. 14, 2013: Wilson, the state attorney general, asks the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate whether Harrell used his office or campaign fund for personal gain. The accusations were leveled in a complaint by Policy Council President Ashley Landess, who says she presented Wilson with potential conflicts that would arise if the House Ethics Committee investigates a complaint against Harrell.

Feb. 28, 2013: SLED confirms it has launched an investigation of Harrell.

Stephen Largen

Democrats in the House and Senate, for example, frequently criticize Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration and her policy moves.

But when it comes to House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican who is under fire for allegedly using his campaign account and office for personal gain, legislative Democrats have essentially been silent, generally not uttering a word of criticism or concern.

The reasons why lawmakers have been wary of questioning Harrell, political observers say, go back to the immense power the speaker wields over the legislative process through things such as committee appointments and the cross-party alliances formed in the lower chamber.

Harrell, who presides over the House, arguably is the most powerful elected official in South Carolina.

Several Democrats, including Reps. Harry Ott of St. Matthews and David Mack of North Charleston, describe Harrell not only as a respected colleague but also a friend. He deserves complete due process, not criticism, they said.

“I believe if there are groups out there who want to target any individual in the General Assembly, they could do that,” Ott said. “And I don’t think we should just take a group’s accusations and say it’s the truth. Everybody needs an opportunity, if somebody makes a charge against you, I think you should be given ample opportunity to respond to those charges.”

In a statement, Harrell dismissed the allegations against him.

“As is typical, political attacks and baseless mudslinging like this situation distract the media’s attention much more than it does lawmakers at the (Statehouse),” he said.

And Harrell said he has received strong support while the House is “having an incredibly productive year,” passing legislation to fix a ballot issue that caused the removal of hundreds of candidates last year and a bill to dedicate $100 million to road funding without raising taxes.

“The outpouring of support I’ve received from folks here at home and from my colleagues in the House, particularly from House leadership, reflects that most people are seeing this for what it is, just another baseless politically motivated attack,” Harrell said.

A place at the table

The S.C. Policy Council, a limited-government think tank, filed an ethics complaint against Harrell, alleging among other things that he has used his campaign account and legislative office to benefit himself. After meeting with the group’s leader, Attorney General Alan Wilson in February asked the State Law Enforcement Division to conduct an initial investigation of the charges.

Mack said he is not concerned about any of the questions that have arisen about Harrell. Having Harrell as the leader of the House has been a great benefit to the Lowcountry, the Democrat said, and losing him would hurt the region.

Talk to Democratic staffers and, when they’re permitted to speak without attribution, they will explain that publicly scrutinizing Harrell would be akin to criticizing your doctor just before he’s about to put you under anesthesia.

The Republicans’ majority in the House is substantial enough that the GOP can pass most legislation without any Democratic votes if Republicans vote as a united group.

Harrell is known generally for giving Democrats a place at the table, bringing them into the legislative process and letting them provide input. He is generally regarded by supporters as a pragmatist.

“He’s trying to tug the far right wing of his party to the center, and he finds himself making compromises with responsive Democrats who are willing to deal with him,” said Mark Tompkins, a University of South Carolina political scientist.

To others, Harrell is regarded as vindictive.

Harrell’s Republican peers also have voiced their support for him, though multiple lawmakers confirm that a thus-far subterranean campaign by multiple Republicans to be Harrell’s possible successor in the House already is under way. Others, such as Charleston GOP Rep. Chip Limehouse, say they have heard no such talk.

Limehouse, a Harrell ally, said the controversy surrounding the House speaker has been “a complete non-issue” in the Republican caucus.

Democratic frustration

Dick Harpootlian, the outgoing chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said he has been frustrated by the reluctance of Democratic House members to take on Harrell, but he noted that Harrell controls most committee assignments in the House.

“A number of House Democrats have indicated Harrell is a very retributive guy and they are fearful that if they do speak up, they will be kicked off committees,” Harpootlian said.

“I guess crumbs are better than nothing.”

Haley has said that when she was a House member from Lexington County, Harrell knocked her off a preferred committee because of her push for mandatory on-the-record voting. Harrell has denied Haley’s accusation.

An ‘unfolding story’

Unless a credible challenger to Harrell emerges or an investigation yields information or charges that make his continued leadership untenable, House members appear unlikely to stop supporting Harrell, who was re-elected to the speaker’s post late last year.

A state government watchdog group has called on Harrell to step down as speaker during the investigation, but he has rejected that request. His spokesman called the group, S.C. Common Cause, part of an effort to smear the speaker. Elections for House speaker are held every two years, but House members could attempt to change chamber rules to hold an election sooner.

Tompkins said what happens next in “an unfolding story” could depend in large part on Harrell’s relationship with his fellow House members.

“It probably turns on whether the members continue to feel OK about him or not,” Tompkins said.

If he is cleared, Harrell’s political power likely will remain intact if not grow, said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist who runs the school’s polling operation.

“If he is exonerated, (Harrell) will be able to say, ‘My political enemies leveled attacks against me but failed,’ ” Huffmon said.

“While he’ll be battered during the process, he’ll come out emboldened and maybe a little empowered.”

Succession campaign?

Rep. Ralph Norman, a Rock Hill Republican who unsuccessfully ran against Harrell for the speaker’s post in 2010, said he wants to let the process play out when it comes to the investigation of Harrell before commenting on it.

Until that time, he said, it would be premature to say whether he would try to succeed Harrell as House speaker.

The next regularly scheduled speaker’s election would take place in late 2014.

Norman said there already is chatter about taking Harrell’s place.

“Are there talks among members? Oh yeah, there’s talks about a lot of things,” he said. Norman said he could see four or five Republicans who could be interested in taking over as House speaker.

Ott, the St. Matthews Democrat and former House minority leader, said he hasn’t been approached by any Republicans hoping to unseat Harrell, but noted that he likely would be one of the last members to be approached because of his friendship with the Charleston Republican.

To Tompkins and Huffmon, it makes sense that Republicans hoping to be the next House speaker are keeping talk of their interest confined.

“You don’t take down the king until you know who’s next,” Tompkins said.

Huffmon said potential Harrell successors need to start moving early. “But if you are seen moving early and he’s exonerated, you’re going to be in for a world of hurt,” Huffmon said. “At this point, being risk-averse is probably your wisest choice.”