COLUMBIA- The S.C. House panel charged with overseeing ethics violations in the state Legislature was never the appropriate body to investigate allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, according to the watchdog group that is pursuing a complaint against the Charleston Republican.
Ashley Landess, president of the watchdog group South Carolina Policy Council, told reporters at a news conference Wednesday that accusations against Harrell - including that he used campaign funds for personal use and illegally directed political action committee dollars - rise to the level of criminal public corruption, not civil infractions generally investigated by the House Ethics Committee.
Her comments come on the heels of a Post and Courier story Wednesday that said Harrell's lawyers plan to argue next week that Attorney General Alan Wilson and a state grand jury do not have legal jurisdiction over the ethics-related complaint. That jurisdiction, said Gedney Howe, one of Harrell's attorneys, belongs to the House Ethics Committee.
Wilson referred the matter to a state grand jury earlier this year. No charges have been filed.
Landess and John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina who has also been involved in the complaint against Harrell, say that the allegations would not get a fair hearing in front of an ethics committee made up of lawmakers who are afraid of the powerful House speaker.
Crangle said that fear is evident in that both Democrats and Republicans have said little to nothing about the accusations against Harrell.
"I've never seen politicians so scared in my life," Crangle said.
Landess had a meeting with House Ethics Committee chairman Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, last year before she sent the complaint to the attorney general. She said he told her that the ethics committee was not the right place for her complaint and that it should be sent to Wilson.
She said Bingham "had concerns" about the complaint being filed with the ethics committee. In an interview Wednesday, Bingham said that because Landess raised allegations of public corruption and criminality, her complaint would best be handled by the attorney general.
"We're a civil body," Bingham said. "What she was alleging are elements of public corruption and criminal behavior. We're not a police department."
Bingham said that if a complaint had been filed, his committee is equipped to handle it fairly by hiring outside investigators.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, a member of the ethics committee, said that the committee would do its job fairly. "We have responsibilities to each other, to the body as a whole and to the people of South Carolina, and we understand that," he said.
Howe, Harrell's attorney, said that court precedent shows that a complaint must first be filed with the House Ethics Committee. If wrongdoing is suspected, the committee can refer the matter to law enforcement. No complaint was ever formally filed.
Harrell declined to comment. He said in an interview last month that the accusations against him are without merit and politically motivated.
"My family has endured a totally unfair attack on our reputation," Harrell said, "and we're fighting back as hard as we can to prove our attackers wrong."
Some of the allegations against Harrell stem from a 2012 Post and Courier story that detailed trips the speaker took on his private plane to and from Columbia and other places. Harrell, who was elected to the House in 1992, has repaid himself nearly a quarter-million dollars for travel expenses over the past four years, the newspaper found. On his campaign finance reports, the Charleston Republican provided few descriptions of where he went or the reasons for the trips.
In addition to attending campaign events and fundraisers for other House members, Harrell said in a statement at the time that he uses the funds for travel related to his legislative duties, which is allowed under state law.
"While South Carolina is known for having a rough and tough political history, I never thought I'd be attacked for saving taxpayers money by using campaign funds instead of state funds to pay for official Legislative expenses," Harrell said in the statement.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.