Groups call on Harrell to release reimbursement records
COLUMBIA — A wide-ranging collection of state watchdog and political groups gathered Tuesday at the Statehouse to deliver a shared message to House Speaker Bobby Harrell: Release receipts detailing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign reimbursements over the past four years.
Reimbursement issue explained
Q: What’s the issue with House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s reimbursements?
A: State law allows elected officials to use their campaign funds for activities related to their official duties in addition to campaigning. It requires reporting of campaign expenditures with a brief description for each. The law also requires officials to maintain and preserve all receipted bills and accounts associated with those expenditures for four years. Harrell has said he has receipts for all but $23,000 of about $280,000 in spending from his campaign account since summer 2008. He told The Associated Press he has returned that $23,000 to his campaign account. Although Harrell allowed the AP to view the receipts he says account for the remainder of the campaign spending, he has neither allowed The Post and Courier to review the documents nor released them publicly. State law does not require Harrell to publicly release the receipts, but watchdog groups have said that without the required documentation, it is impossible to confirm that Harrell spent the money properly.
Q: What does Harrell say?
A: Harrell has said he is in full compliance with the law and that he has put the issue to rest. He said in an email to supporters and on his website last week that the media is unfairly attacking him because he is conservative.
Q: Who gets to look at the receipts?
A: According to state law, the House Ethics Committee appears to be the only body that has the authority to demand Harrell produce the receipts in the event the committee launches an investigation. The committee is expected to receive a complaint regarding Harrell’s reimbursements after Election Day. State law bars the committee from accepting a complaint within 50 days of an election in which the subject of the complaint is on the ballot. Harrell is seeking re-election on Nov. 6.
Q: Who is raising questions about Harrell’s spending and what have they done?
A: A wide spectrum of watchdog and political groups. They have called for Harrell to release the receipts, and several have said the House Ethics Committee should recuse itself from an investigation of the reimbursements.
It’s a step Harrell, a Charleston Republican, has yet to take after The Post and Courier last month first reported on questions surrounding Harrell’s self-reimbursement of about $280,000 from his campaign account since the summer of 2008.
The groups that gathered included the limited-government supporting S.C. Policy Council, Common Cause of South Carolina, the tea-party leaning RINO Hunt (RINO stands for “Republican In Name Only”) and others.
“Why is it in South Carolina that it’s so hard to get to the truth when it involves politicians?” asked RINO Hunt organizer Harry Kibler.
John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause, said Harrell should release nothing less than full documentation supporting the reimbursements.
Under state law, Harrell does not have to publicly release those records but must maintain receipts for the past four years of reimbursements. But critics say it’s impossible to confirm Harrell’s reimbursements are legitimate without a release of receipts backing them up.
Harrell spokesman Greg Foster said in a statement Tuesday that Harrell is in full compliance with state ethics law. He also said the groups questioning the reimbursements have a track record of political attacks on the speaker.
Some of the groups recently criticized Harrell for his support of a project that would complete Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands.
Foster was on hand for the news conference but left shortly before the event’s conclusion and before reporters could ask him questions.
Harrell has allowed The Associated Press to review receipts he said accounted for all but just under $23,000 of the roughly $280,000 he reimbursed himself from his campaign account over the past four years. Harrell returned the $23,000 to his campaign account, telling a House ethics panel in a letter that while he believes the expenses were legitimate, he doesn’t have the receipts to support them. Harrell attributed the missing receipts to a business relocation.
Foster and Harrell have repeatedly said in statements that the AP story demonstrates that Harrell is in compliance with state law.
Harrell did not allow the AP to make copies of the receipts, and has declined to release the records to The Post and Courier and other media outlets.
Harrell’s office also has declined to address questions from the newspaper seeking additional information on how he reimbursed himself for use of his private plane. Harrell told the AP he determines what charter companies charge to fly his same aircraft for a trip, then reimburses himself less than that. State law doesn’t address how such a reimbursement should be calculated.
Talbert Black, a leading figure in the state tea party movement, said that Harrell should have reimbursed himself less than $200 for each of the frequent round trips Harrell made from Charleston to Columbia in recent years.
Black cited flight-reimbursement rates from other states and the federal reimbursement rate. “Where is the money going? The numbers bear further investigation,” Black said.
Several of the groups also called for an independent investigation of Harrell’s reimbursements, saying a panel of Harrell’s fellow House members has too much of a conflict of interest to independently probe the spending.
The House Ethics Committee is made up of six House members, five of whom have received campaign contributions from a political action committee associated with Harrell.
Crangle called on state Attorney General Alan Wilson to work with the State Law Enforcement Division to request the impaneling of a state grand jury to look into Harrell’s reimbursements.
Wilson wrote in a statement Tuesday that under state law, the House committee is the appropriate reviewing authority for a complaint against Harrell. That complaint is expected to be lodged after Election Day.
But Wilson appeared to crack the door on the possibility that his office could eventually have a role in examining the reimbursements.
“Should the House Ethics Committee not act, this Office is then prepared to do what is in the public’s best interest,” he said in the statement.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.