Answers sought from House Speaker Bobby Harrell on reimbursements
Watchdog groups and the state Democratic Party are calling on the state attorney general to look into how House Speaker Bobby Harrell spent nearly $326,000 he reimbursed himself from his campaign account.
South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell has reimbursed himself more than $325,000 from his campaign war chest since 2008 but has produced no receipts or itemized invoices accounting for the spending as required by state law.
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 no descriptions of where he went or the reasons for the trips.
State politicians must maintain such documentation for four years to prove they are using campaign money for political rather than personal spending.
State law also requires candidates to itemize their expenditures on disclosure forms filed with the commission.
Before this election season, Harrell has run unopposed in every election since 2000.
Additionally, two state lawmakers have called on Harrell to publicly release itemized invoices detailing how he used the money.
The S.C. Policy Council, S.C. Democratic Party and S.C. Common Cause want Attorney General Alan Wilson to investigate how Harrell documented and spent the money he took from campaign coffers.
In a statement, Wilson's spokesman said “it is premature for this office to comment at this time.”
“We will review the matter and take necessary action, if warranted,” spokesman J. Mark Powell said in the statement.
For more than a month, Harrell has produced no receipts or itemized invoices accounting for his spending, The Post and Courier reported Monday.
Harrell's spokesman, Greg Foster, released a statement Monday saying “the Speaker is in full compliance with all aspects of our state's ethics laws.”
Since Aug. 30, the newspaper repeatedly asked Harrell's office whether he could produce receipts and itemize expenditures showing how the money was spent. Harrell has failed to do so.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, formerly the S.C. Senate president, said he is “assuming he's got every receipt.”
“If he's got the receipts and invoices, he should just release those,” the Charleston Republican said of Harrell.
Yes or no?
On Friday, after posing the same question multiple times, the newspaper sent the following email to Harrell's office: “State yes or no whether the Speaker at this time has the receipts and itemized documents required under state law to justify his reimbursements.”
He refused to say whether such invoices or itemizations exist.
But in a statement Monday, Foster said: “A point the Post & Courier reporter either failed to grasp or failed to accurately report, as (sic) that Speaker Harrell does in fact keep detailed itemized records of all campaign expenditures and receipts should the Ethics Committee ever wish to review and confirm any expense.”
Foster again refused to provide the receipts and other documents.
Section 8 of the S.C. Ethics Law requires candidates to “maintain and preserve all receipted bills and accounts required by this article for four years.”
Section 8 also states “candidate reimbursements must be itemized so that the purpose and recipient of the expenditure are identified.” Candidates “must disclose all information required on the form developed under this section,” the law states.
Portions of the forms Harrell filed with the State Ethics Commission, an independent government agency, included none of the itemizations and none of the receipts.
Even though the documents are filed with the independent Ethics Commission, enforcement of Section 8 rests with a separate body — the House Ethics Committee, a panel of six of Harrell's fellow lawmakers. A political action committee with which Harrell is affiliated has given campaign contributions to five of them.
Committee Chairman Roland Smith — who has received at least $2,000 from the PAC — told the newspaper last week he “can't afford to talk about” Harrell's campaign spending.
Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, a libertarian think tank, called Smith's approach “disgraceful,” saying she doesn't trust the committee to investigate thoroughly.
“Citizens deserve some public official in this state to stand up for them,” Landess said, urging the attorney general to investigate the matter.
John Crangle, executive director of S.C. Common Cause, said he hand-delivered a letter Monday afternoon in which the watchdog group formally requested an investigation.
Dick Harpootlian, president of the S.C. Democratic Party, said Harrell's failure to produce documentation “demonstrates a contempt for the law.”
“This is a financial shell game — make as much money as you can off of public service,” Harpootlian said. “I join in the call for Attorney General Wilson to investigate this immediately.”
In a statement, Wilson's spokesman indicated he would not take immediate action.
“By law, the House Ethics Committee would be the initial reviewing authority,” Powell said in the statement.
Last month, Wilson and Gov. Nikki Haley toured the state touting ethics reform. In a press release Aug. 20, Haley said current ethics laws are “too confusing, too insular, and most of all, far too weak.”
She continued: “The most important thing a public official can do is to try and right the wrongs they come across in public life.”
The governor declined to be interviewed Monday. In a statement, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said, “We're not interested in taking pot shots at Speaker Harrell.”
“We're sure he will tend to these matters, as he should,” Godfrey wrote.
Landess said state lawmakers must demand accountability.
“It falls to every member of the House to seek explanation of the speaker's activities and why this has gone unchallenged,” she said.
One state lawmaker said he trusts Harrell is playing by the rules.
“I would take the speaker at his word that this has been travel for campaign-related business,” said S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican.
Harrell, who was elected to the House in 1992, has repaid himself nearly a quarter-million dollars for travel expenses over the last four years, the newspaper found.
S.C. Rep. Ralph Norman, a York Republican, was more skeptical than Limehouse.
“He's gonna have to go overboard now to explain why he hasn't provided this so far,” Norman said. “This isn't something he can stonewall. There are enough people in the House that are gonna demand that he answer.”
Norman summed it up this way: “You can't govern effectively if you're under this cloud of suspicion. How is he gonna make laws if he's not abiding by them?”
Reach Renee Dudley at 937-5550 or on Twitter @renee_dudley.
Editor's note: Earlier published versions of this story need correcting.
South Carolina law does not require House Speaker Bobby Harrell to produce for the public receipts or itemized invoices accounting for how he spent campaign funds. It does require him to maintain the records, receipts or other proof of payment for campaign expenditures dating back four years. Both stories should have indicated the Palmetto Leadership Council, a political action committee affiliated with Harrell, has given campaign contributions to certain legislative candidates and members.
The Post and Courier regrets the errors.