COLUMBIA — Bobby Harrell stepped into a Statehouse meeting room filled with reporters Thursday. He shuffled some papers around and took a sip of water.
Then, he sought to steadily chip away at his detractors.
“I was shocked and blindsided by yesterday’s news,” he began, pointing to the previous day’s announcement that Attorney General Alan Wilson had moved the ethics investigation against him to a state grand jury.
He called the probe a “blatant smear campaign” meant to embarrass him, and vowed to continue concentrating on the legislative year ahead. “The facts still are that I have not broken the law,” Harrell said.
The S.C. House speaker — arguably the most powerful member of the General Assembly — said he had been expecting to be exonerated after an 11-month investigation by state authorities into whether he used his position for personal gain.
He has been accused of using his status to obtain a license to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business, and of improprieties surrounding his campaign expense account, which he said he used for his office and traveling to and from Columbia in his airplane.
“This mudslinging didn’t distract the House from having a productive session last year,” Harrell said. “And it won’t stop the House from advancing the major reforms we’re taking on this year either. I’m not distracted. The House isn’t distracted.”
Wilson’s office says it will have no more comment for the immediate future.
1 Who is Bobby Harrell?
In 1992, Harrell was a boyish-looking 36-year-old insurance agent who ran as a Republican for an open seat in the state House of Representatives covering West Ashley. At the time the Legislature was just emerging from the cloud of “Operation Lost Trust” — the FBI sting of the S.C. General Assembly. He was also a son of then-state highway commissioner Bob Harrell Sr.
“When I get to Columbia, I will be a legislator who thinks in terms of small business, not political favors,” Harrell said at the time.
Harrell’s rise within the ranks of the House leadership was fast. Within six years he was made chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, responsible for charting state spending. He ascended to the House’s top post in 2005, after serving just 12 years in Columbia. Among the powers that go with being House speaker are making the committee assignments of other House members.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have repeatedly praised Harrell for his fairness, calm demeanor and even-handedness. Some also considered him once to be an attractive candidate for governor one day.
2 What’s scope of the inquiry?
Harrell’s finances were first called into scrutiny more than a year ago, largely driven by the media and a Columbia think tank, the S.C. Policy Council.
In 2012, The Post and Courier reported that Harrell had reimbursed himself more than $325,000 from his campaign war chest since 2008, much of that to pay for his costs for using his private plane for what he termed “official legislative trips and politically related travel.”
His quarterly campaign filings gave generic descriptions to explain his reimbursements. State law allows campaign donations to be spent on campaigning or official duties, which are broad for Harrell because of his leadership role.
He repaid his campaign account $23,000 after saying he couldn’t find receipts for withdrawals for those funds, blaming sloppy record-keeping and an office move in 2011 in which some records were lost.
In September 2012, in the wake of the Post and Courier report, Harrell showed documentation to The Associated Press — credit card and phone bills, hotel invoices and pay stubs — that he said backed up his assertions. He would not allow the documents to be copied, and still has not released them to the public.
State law seems to support his position, as it requires state politicians to maintain such documentation for four years to prove they are using campaign money for political rather than personal spending, but does not require that information to be made public.
Meanwhile, the Policy Council filed a complaint alleging that Harrell used his office to boost his finances by using influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business, Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals, which has since been sold.
The Policy Council also took issue with Harrell appointing his brother to a committee that screens judicial candidates before they are voted on by the Legislature.
SLED began its investigation in early 2013 and presented a report to the Attorney General’s office in December.
Harrell is not charged with a crime.
3 Case politically motivated?
Much has been made about the fact that the Attorney General’s office announced the grand jury probe the day before the Legislature reconvened. On the surface, there is no previous evidence that Wilson and Harrell were ever at odds over anything major.
Wilson, a Republican, is not a product of the Legislature: He was elected attorney general in 2010 after a career as a prosecutor.
Some believe that with so many pairs of special interest eyes following the Harrell investigation, Wilson’s decision to go to a grand jury might be more a show of caution rather than an indicator of wrongdoing.
Others in the legal community are scratching their heads as to why Wilson didn’t announce the probe a week before or after the session began to avoid clouding its start.
One of Harrell’s lawyers, former U.S. Attorney Bart Daniel of Charleston, declined to address the case last week, but issued an emailed response to The Post and Courier.
“While we were surprised and disappointed at the recent turn of events, we will continue to cooperate fully with the Attorney General’s office, SLED and now the State Grand Jury as we have done for the last 11 months,” Daniel said. “We look forward to a speedy resolution of the investigation.”
Miller Shealy, a former state and federal prosecutor who teaches at the Charleston School of Law, said Wilson doesn’t appear to have broken any rules by making the grand jury inquiry public.
“The timing of this may have to do with the facts and witnesses we don’t know about,” he said.
4 What’s the grand jury’s role?
A state grand jury has the authority to subpoena individuals and documents, wide latitude and power that can compel witnesses to testify under oath.
In order to indict, at least 12 of the 18 grand jurors would have to agree that there was evidence of criminal wrongdoing presented to them. There is no time line for such an inquiry.
“A grand jury investigation is not an indication of guilt or innocence,” said Mark Powell, spokesman for the attorney general’s office. Their meeting place and sessions are secret.
A matter of much speculation in Columbia is how aggressively Wilson, previously viewed as a Harrell ally, will pursue the case. In legal circles, it’s often joked that a prosecutor could persuade a jury to indict a ham sandwich.
Grand juries also can issue reports and explain reasons for pursuing charges or not, but that is not required.
In 2012, the state grand jury indicted former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard on ethics violations covering improprieties in spending campaign money. He resigned and pleaded guilty, ending his career.
5 Effects on Harrell’s future?
This year is an election year, and Harrell’s seat is one of the 124 House spots going before the voters, starting with the June primaries. No one has come forward so far announcing a formal challenge.
Politically, Harrell has never faced a serious threat through 10 election cycles. During 2012 — when the ethics allegations were front and center in media reports — Harrell easily held off tea-party-aligned candidate John Steinberger and Green Party hopeful Larry Carter Center with 74 percent of the vote.
His most recent campaign disclosure report for 2014 lists him with nearly $75,000 cash on hand.
How much the grand jury probe has injured Harrell’s power as speaker has yet to be tested, largely because the session is not even a week old. Democrats already have shown a reluctance to take on Harrell directly while the grand jury review is underway.
Harrell’s friends say they’ve seen the investigation take a toll. “I think everybody supports his effort to clear his name,” said Rep. Jim Merrill, a Charleston Republican.
Rep. Bobby Harrell addresses South Carolina House members after he was elected to replace David Wilkins as Speaker of the House in 2005. Wilkins resigned to become the Ambassador to Canada.×
Metro South Carolina State House Rep. Bobby Harrell (right) reacts to applause from House Members after he was elected to replace David Wilkins (left) as Speaker of the House Thursday, June 2, 2005. Wilkins resigned the post to become the Ambassador to Canada. (File/Brad Nettles/Staff) 6/2/05×